Lakeridge High freshman Claire Sarnowski is teaming up with state Sen. Rob Wagner and Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener to tackle an issue that's especially important to all three of them: mandating Holocaust education in Oregon.
Sarnowski, Wagner and Wiener will testify in front of the Senate Education Committee in Salem on Sept. 25 in the hope that students across the state will be taught about the Holocaust and the overall issue of genocide.
Sarnowski came to know Wiener four years ago after she attended one of his talks. She was only in fourth grade at the time.
"It was so moving and interesting to me to hear his personal account," she says, "and it really impacted me."
After the talk, Claire and her mother Carol contacted Wiener and scheduled a visit to his house.
"He was such a generous and kind man. I remember thinking, 'How could someone exhibit so much kindness after going through the things that he has been through?'" Claire says.
Wiener's father was murdered in Poland by German invaders when he was only 13 years old, and Wiener himself was taken to a forced labor camp at 15. He eventually spent time in five different concentration camps, and when his last camp was liberated in 1945, he was 18 years old and weighed 80 pounds. He was one of only two surviving members of his entire extended family.
Sarnowski says that hearing Wiener speak cemented her desire to spread the story to other students.
"I knew about what happened in the Holocaust, but I didn't truly understand until I got to hear a survivor speak," she says. "Of course I felt awful, and wanted to spread all of the love that I could to him. But I also just wanted to connect with him because he seemed like such a fascinating person, and he was so grateful for life."
After four years of friendship, Sarnowski says she considers Wiener a member of her family and knows that he has helped shape the person she has become. Now, she wants to do something for him.
"It's always been a big dream of his to get this mandate to happen, because as a survivor, it's something he really wants to promote at a school level."
Oregon does not currently have mandatory Holocaust education. "From what we've discovered by talking to educators all across Oregon," Carol Sarnowski says, "it is all over the place."
"Some districts do have requirements for teaching, but not necessarily in depth. Some teachers do their own curriculum at their own discretion," she says. "Districts can mandate their own curriculum, but there is no monitoring as to what is taught or how it's taught."
But if the mandate is passed, Oregon will join 10 other states — California, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — that require some level of Holocaust and genocide education in its classrooms.
Wagner, who will speak alongside Sarnowski and Wiener at the hearing in Salem next week, says he hopes to have a bill introduced in the Legislature in January. He says he sees his role as helping Sarnowski and Wiener spread their message and navigate the legislative process.
"I sometimes feel like it's pretty easy as a legislator to move into the front of it and take credit," Wagner says. "I want to take this as an opportunity to empower Claire and Alter and their message."
Wagner says the idea for the legislation was originally brought to him by Sarnowski, who arranged for him to meet with Wiener and hear his story.
"We ended up spending two hours together," Wagner says, "drinking fruit smoothies and talking about the world."
He says he was interested in being part of Sarnowski and Wiener's efforts because they reflected why he ran for the School Board and the state Senate.
"I remember looking at my kids, after many of the incidents of racism and anti-Semitism in Lake Oswego," Wagner says, "and thinking, 'We need to prioritize a culture change.'"
Sarnowski believes Holocaust education is an important step toward positive change, because she has seen Wiener's story affect thousands of other students across the country.
"Alter has over 88,000 letters from people all over, saying, 'Mr. Wiener, you saved my life,' 'You changed my life,' 'You helped me stay in school,' or, 'You helped me through a really tough time,'" says Sarnowski. "People are able to compare their problems to his problems, and see that theirs are very small. It's something that is very gratifying to hear as a student, and as someone who knows Alter on a personal level. I feel really inclined to try to make this happen not only for him, but for all those who perished in the Holocaust."
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