PORTLAND — Joined by Holocaust survivors, legislators, Jewish community members, and educators, Governor Kate Brown today signed Senate Bill 664, requiring Holocaust and genocide education in Oregon schools. in at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.
For many of the attendees, the bill was a result of a lifelong effort of advocacy and education. Oregon is now the 11th state in the nation to mandate this age-appropriate education, which will start in the 2020-21 school year.
But there was one person in particular who’s energy was in the room. Although Alter Wiener is no longer with us, his presence was felt. Alter dedicated his life to educating people about the Holocaust and sharing his own story of being a survivor. Born in Poland, at the age of 15 he was sent to forced labor camps and was a survivor of Auschwitz.
When the Russian Army liberated him in 1945, he weighed a mere 80 pounds.
Alter’s horrific experience, and those of other survivors, led many on a path to ensure that their trauma— and their family and friends who lost their lives— would never be forgotten.
After the war, Alter came to the U.S and later moved to Oregon in 2000. He then authored a book titled “64735: From A Name To A Number – A Holocaust Survivor’s Autobiography” Alter pursued his passion for education by visiting and speaking at hundreds of schools and community events.
His story is powerful. I remember he came to my middle school and hearing his story had a lasting effect on everyone in my class.
An Intergenerational Friendship
The sentiment was shared in 2014 by Claire Sarnowski, a 4th grader. Inspired by Alter’s story, Claire befriended Alter.
The intergenerational friendship led Claire to contact her local representative, Senator Rob Wagner. Initially, Claire wanted the Lake Oswego representative and school board member to advocate for requiring education in her school district. Wagner surpassed Claire’s expectations and introduced a bill to the legislature.
Claire joined her friend Alter in testifying before the legislature to advocate for the bill, which requires Holocaust and genocide education to be taught in Oregon schools. It worked.
Now, after decades of advocacy from Holocaust survivors and organizations around the state and across the country, every Oregon student will learn about the Holocaust and genocide.
Knowledge is Power
The need for a bill becomes apparent once you look at the statistics. A study funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 2/3 of Americans age 18 to 34 did not know what the Auschwitz concentration camp was.
The study also found that 4 in 10 thought 2 million or fewer Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust. The study found that people drastically underestimate the lives lost, and the number that is actually around 6 million.
These statistics are horrifying for those who have fought to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten; many of their stories have faded away as the number of survivors is ever shrinking with passing time..
Some of the survivors were in the audience at the bill signing ceremony; one, in particular, was Eva Aigner who spoke at the ceremony. She recounted her experience and expressed her great pleasure that students will learn about the Holocaust.
Governor Kate Brown noted that education like this is critical in times of rising hatred and bigotry. She referenced the Tree of Life synagogue shooting saying, “There is a growing culture of hate and discrimination in America right now. We must stomp it out.”
“Today, we take a step forward in making sure that the atrocities of the Holocaust are never forgotten and never ignored.Governor Kate Brown
An educated public is the first line of defense against tyranny and hatred like that prevalent in the time of the Holocaust. The goal of this legislation is to help ensure a tragedy like that never happens again.
Governor Kate Brown said she is “Proud Oregon can lead on this issue” and survivors are proud that Oregon is doing its part to educate kids and ensure tragedies like these never happen again.