Holocaust, Genocide Education Mandate Passes First Hurdle

After a sprint to get on the legislature’s schedule, a bill mandating Holocaust and genocide education passed the 10-member Senate Education Policy Committee by unanimous vote Monday afternoon. It’s the first hurdle in an effort to become the 23rd state to have some form of Holocaust or genocide education mandate.

Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, the committee chair who is also the lead author of the Senate bill, had been a social studies teacher in his prior career and lost many family members to the Holocaust.

“It’s such a hard topic for me in particular, and my grandfather had 11 siblings and eight of his brothers perished in the Holocaust,” Cwodzinski said. “A lot of people have similar stories of similar genocides in their family background.”

The bill is the result of an effort between the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, as well as indigenous legislators at the Capitol. The addition of indigenous genocides was important to Rep. Frank Hornstein, the lead author in House.

“I think it’s particularly important that here in Minnesota we acknowledge and mandate education about the indigenous peoples’ genocide,” he said. “For me, as a child of survivors, obviously Holocaust education is very, very important to me. But I think many Americans either are not familiar with or have a different narrative of the indigenous genocide, and it’s really important that we acknowledge the truth of what happened here.”

The bill will require: analyzing the connections between World War II, nationalism, fascism, antisemitism, and the Holocaust, examining the history of the genocide of Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous removal from Minnesota, including the genocide, dispossession, and forced removal of the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk, and Identify more than a dozen other historical instances of genocide, including the Armenian, Ukrainian, Cambodian, and Rwandan, as well as contemporary cases of genocide and mass violence which may also be analyzed to understand both how those communities were affected by genocide and what the response was to these atrocities.

The bill will also create a task force of experts, teachers, students, and community members impacted by genocide to curate resources, and appropriating grant money for professional development for educators, the task force, and implementing the requirements.

Monday’s hearing featured several in-person witness testimonies, including a genocide expert from the University of Minnesota, as well as letters from JCRC Director of Holocaust Education Laura Zelle, Joni Sussman, the publisher of Kar-Ben books – both of whom are the children of Holocaust survivors, U of M professors Sheer Ganor and Gabriela Spears-Rico, and Minneapolis Public School teacher Luda Anastazievsky, who is the granddaughter of survivors of the Holodomor Genocide in Ukraine in 1932-33. Anastazievsky also testified in person.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with numerous communities whose legacies are tainted by the legacies of genocide. A paramount for all of these communities is the desire to teach Minnesotans about their histories,” said Joe Eggers, the interim director of the CHGS. “One community leader told me genocide is woven into the fabric of Minnesota. And he’s right. In the last five decades, tens of thousands of foreign-born people have found a safe home in Minnesota after fleeing their homelands in the wake of violence and even genocide.

Eggers said that number didn’t include the Jews, Indians, and earlier waves of Ukrainians who came to Minnesota in the early 20th century, nor did it include Minnesota’s indigenous nations who have routinely been subjected to genocidal policies in the state since 1805.

“Surveys we’ve done with educators point to the lack of resources as the primary reason teachers give for not including Holocaust and other genocides in their curriculum. Nearly every respondent said that including these topics was important to them, and less than half spend any time. And that number drops significantly when we factor in other genocides.

“We cannot escape the legacies of genocide, but we can better equip teachers for addressing them in their classrooms.”

Kristin Thompson, who spent 19 years teaching history in Minnesota schools and another five-and-a-half years as a teacher educator for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that despite the post-Holocaust cries of “never again,” human rights violations, atrocities and genocide continue around the globe.

“Institutions and systems that were supposed to protect citizens and uphold democracy failed during the Holocaust,” she said. “Studying how and why the Holocaust happened helps us find ways to safeguard against making similar mistakes today, with an alarming increase in reported incidents of antisemitism, dangerous speech, hate speech, and hate crimes, Holocaust the genocide education is more important now than ever.”

Thompson said that Holocaust education in particular is taught in English Language Arts classes rather than history or social studies.

“It’s often just reading Anne Frank, or Elie Weisel’s Night, which primarily take place in 1944-45,” Thompson said. “So we’ve missed all of this historical context leading up to it. And oftentimes ELA teachers have told us that they don’t feel confident in their own knowledge of the historical context to help that address that for students. That’s part of helping teachers feel confident in teaching this and to equip them with the tools that they need that are necessary.”

Time crunch

Part of the reason for the rush to get the bill heard in the committees is because of legislative procedure. The bill needed to be filed by Wednesday, March 1, so that it could be introduced the following day before being heard in the committee. 

Hornstein explained that a policy bill that has a financial component has to clear either a House or Senate policy committee by Friday, March 10. It then has to clear a policy committee in the other body – in this case the House Education Policy Committee – by Friday, March 24. It will then have to pass the education finance committees in both bodies by April 4.

Ethan Roberts, the director of governmental affairs and deputy executive director of the JCRC, said the bill’s next stop on the Senate side is State and Local Government and Veterans Committee on March 16, which it needs to go to because of the task force component of the bill.

“Today was the beginning,” Roberts said. “I think it’s a great bill, and I’m not worried once it gets heard. But getting it on a calendar when so many other bills, has been the challenge.”

Roberts, who said the bill is likely to end up in the Ombibus Education Funding bill, said that a way to keep momentum is for community members to let their elected officials know they support the bill.

“I feel good about what happened today,” he said. “All of the senators were supportive, the testifiers did awesome, and the letters of support were really great. I’m optimistic but it isn’t going to just happen. It will take a lot of work.”