'We will get it across the finish line'
A bill inspired by Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener and championed by Lakeridge High freshman Claire Sarnowski received its first hearing before the Senate Committee on Education last week at the state Capitol in Salem.
Wiener himself was not at the hearing. Tragically, he was struck by a car and killed in Hillsboro on Dec. 11. But he was represented by a huge crowd of friends and fellow survivors — so many people that there wasn't enough time for all who hoped to testify in favor of a bill that would mandate Holocaust and genocide education in Oregon schools.
Sarnowski, who said she was inspired by Wiener and his story of survival and perseverance during the Holocaust, reached out to state Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, for help in crafting the legislation: Senate Bill 664, which would require school districts to provide instruction about Holocaust and genocide, and Senate Concurrent Resolution 21, which would memorialize the life of Alter Wiener.
Wagner, who is chair of the Senate Committee on Education, is the chief sponsor of both bills.
"This is an issue that has touched so many people's lives. Meeting Alter lit a fire under me to do additional research and reach out to people in the community," Wagner said. "States are stepping up. The idea of having this mandate is not unique."
Wagner told attendees who filled the committee room and an overflow space nearby that he and other senators wanted to learn from the stories presented in testimony in order to make the bill the best it can be.
One of those stories came from state Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, who told committee members that her support for the bill comes from her relationship with Wiener.
"The driving force for me was a dear constituent who lived right down the street from me. He hoped that by sharing his story over and over that history does not repeat itself. His determination was to make sure this was taught in our schools," said Sollman. "He is not here to testify, but he knew others would continue to carry that torch. I am so thankful that Claire approached her senator. We will get it across the finish line."
State Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Junction City, said that by passing the bills, "We are doing the right thing for our children, and the right thing for ourselves."
"Education is our greatest social equalizer. We have to make sure critical information is not left out," he said. "We have to make sure we are providing correct information about our history, no matter how horrific it is."
The bills have even garnered the attention and support of Gov. Kate Brown, who had representatives testify on her behalf. Misha Isaak, general counsel to the governor, said the legislation "will enhance sensitivity and make Oregon a better and more inclusive place for all."
Isaak told committee members that he also had a personal reason for supporting the bill: Both of his grandparents are Holocaust survivors who came to America as refugees.
Lindsey Capps, Brown's chief education officer, also testified. "I want to honor and acknowledge the survivors present today," he said. "(The Holocaust) is a profoundly important event in human history, if not a defining one, that continues to shape our world today."
In addition to support from elected officials, the bills were championed by leaders in the Jewish community. Bob Horenstein, the community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, told Senate committee members that one in five millennials either hasn't heard of the Holocaust or isn't sure if they have heard of it.
"The problem isn't merely that our history is fading, but that the lessons that could be applied today are also being lost," said Horenstein. "(The Holocaust) also serves a purpose to be a historical context to understand other tragedies, and keep future ones from occurring. It can help students understand the dangers of racism and dehumanization."
Judy Margles, the executive director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, told Wagner that it has meant a great deal to the Jewish community to have his support.
"This bill comes at an opportune time," said Margles, because the population of Holocaust survivors is in rapid decline. "This bill has the ability to change lives," she said. "We study the Holocaust to study ourselves, and our responsibility to each other in an interconnected world."
Les and Eva Aigner, a married couple who both survived the Holocaust, provided their perspective as well. Like Wiener, they have spoken to audiences across the state about their experiences during the Holocaust.
"We have kept silent for so many years, but we could not keep silent any longer. We had to speak out against hate," said Eva Aigner. "The Holocaust didn't happen on American soil, but it's a significant part of our history. The lessons are even more important today than ever before."
She told committee members that public schools are the best place to teach these lessons.
"Hatred starts as a spark. If you don't teach the consequences of hatred, it will spread like wildfire," she said. "We learned that the only way to fight discrimination is through education, and that starts in our public schools. We are putting our hope in the future generations that such an atrocity will never happen again."
Sarnowski also testified, speaking about how her friendship with Wiener inspired her to reach out to Wagner and begin working to have Holocaust education mandated.
"I am eternally grateful that I was able to meet him after his presentation and create an unbreakable bond that would last in the years forthcoming. Some would say that our friendship was unlikely due to a multitude of differences, including age, gender, religion and living through different generations. However, getting to know one another, the similarities we shared, greatly outweighed these differences," said Sarnowski. "Alter's dream was to mandate education that would continue the legacy of the Holocaust and genocides. Although he is not here with me today, he prepared me to carry on this mission and to persevere in making this a reality."
Sarnowski said that her experiences in public schools have shown her that the lessons of the Holocaust need to be taught to students.
"In schools today, prejudice is as prevalent as ever, since acts of racial, social and religious injustice occur in our classrooms. These teachings can combat this stereotyping and ensure students are equipped to be an upstander rather than a bystander," she said. "I strongly encourage the teachings of the Holocaust and genocides in schools to perpetuate the legacy of those who perished, survived and were affected by these tragic events. This education is essential for not only my generation, but future generations of Oregon students to come."