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Bill's creators and supporters gather for signing ceremony at the state capitol

PMG FILE PHOTO - A Senate bill signed recently by Gov. Kate Brown requires Oregon school districts to teach students about the Holocaust and other genocides in social studies classes. The legislation came about in part due to the work of Claire Sarnowski, a Lake Oswego High School student who befriended the late Alter Wiener (above), a Holocaust survivor who joined Sarnowski in pushing for the bill's passage.

PORTLAND – Gov. Kate Brown signed Oregon's new Holocaust and Genocide Education Bill during a ceremony July 15 at the downtown Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

The bill requires Oregon school districts to teach students about the Holocaust and other genocides in social studies classes. Instruction will start in the 2020-2021 school year.

About 75 bill supporters gathered at the signing ceremony, including Holocaust survivors, Jewish community leaders, state Sen. Rob Wagner (D-Lake Oswego) and Lakeridge High School sophomore Claire Sarnowski, a driving force behind the legislation.

Sarnowski asked legislators, including Wagner, to create the bill after she heard Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener of Hillsboro speak at her school. It was one of more than 1,000 talks the late Wiener gave on the Holocaust.

Next generation

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents are rising across the United States. The incidents quadrupled at K-12 schools from 2015 to 2017.

A 2018 survey from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 22 percent of U.S. millennials "haven't heard" or "are not sure if they have heard" of the Holocaust, while 31 percent of all Americans say 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. About 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, plus millions of other people, including Roma, developmentally disabled people and homosexuals.

Wagner, who also serves on the Lake Oswego school board, has four children in public school.

"Just recently within the last two years, we've seen increasing racism and anti-Semitism, including in my own children's school," Wagner told the group at the signing ceremony. "There were swastikas showing up on bathroom walls at the junior high and posters of Jews being pushed into ovens that were lacquered in our high school. And in my own neighborhood, there were anti-Jewish posters that were put up on light poles outside of our local synagogue."

Wagner said he expected more than that "the concept of the Holocaust and genocide would show up in a paragraph in a dusty textbook in a social studies class. The idea was that teachers would partner with community nonprofits and understand that this curriculum is rich and it is needed in every school to be able to go forward."

Holocaust survivor Eva Aigner told the group that she and others would continue to speak about the horrors of the Holocaust.

"The survivors, along with the second-generation speakers, have literally reached hundreds of thousands of students and other audiences, because we understood the importance of teaching the consequences of hate," she said. "Each of us has to be an example for children and grandchildren, about accepting each other's differences like race, religion and nationalities."

Wagner's bill was unanimously adopted May 28 and signed by Brown

Oregon will become the 11th state to require some form of Holocaust education, joining California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Swastikas in Lake Oswego

Brown said the bill should help students learn about "the scars of history."

"So the future generations can prevent such actions from happening again," Brown told the audience. "This is important legislation because knowledge is power. There is a growing culture of hate and discrimination in America right now. We must stomp it out. And we have to do that together. No one should feel afraid to attend their places of worship or fear stepping outside of their house because of who they love, how they identify, or the color of their skin. Learning about the Holocaust and genocide will give our young people the tools that they need to not only identify these threats, but also the knowledge to fight back in the face of hate."

Wagner said the bill's race to approval was accelerated by "the national mood as it relates to the rise of hate speech and anti-Semitism ... across the country right now."

He praised the "incredible passion of one student (Sarnowski) who had the ability to introduce me to incredible survivor (Wiener). I actually went home and I told my kids about this amazing man, and they said 'Oh, of course, we've met Alter, he's been to our school twice.'"

Wagner said the law establishes the framework that mandates Holocaust education, but the next step includes reaching out to school districts and to teachers, and partnering with civic organizations to create materials for all age levels.

He added that the swastikas at his kids' school could have been inspired by social media.

"The concepts behind genocide, and man's inhumanity to itself, transcend just the Holocaust from the World War II era," he said.

He cited Cambodia, Christians targeted by ISIS, and the Rwandan genocide.

"So, it's the lessons that start with other people that lead to hate speech, that lead to hate crime, that lead to the ultimate atrocity," Wagner said. "And I think the key is noticing that, interrupting and teaching."

Kindness and tolerance 101

Sarnowski said the full curriculum might not be in place until 2024 when the social science curriculum in Oregon K-12 schools is overhauled. But pilot programs already are underway. It might start with "A lesson starting in fourth and fifth grade, teaching tolerance and kindness, and then maybe going into the deeper stuff in middle school and high school," she said.

Sarnowski said ignorance she has come across includes "that the only Holocaust victims were Jewish, or they get the statistics massively wrong about how many people were killed in the Holocaust. And over 40 percent of Gen Z and millennials are unable to name a concentration camp. So that shows you just the ignorance that goes along my generation."

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