If applause were allowed in a Minnesota House of Representatives hearing, Dora Zaidenweber would’ve had a room of legislators on their feet Wednesday afternoon.
Zaidenweber, a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland who has lived in the United States since 1950, was one of four people who gave their testimony to the House Education Policy Committee to support legislation to mandate Holocaust and genocide education for middle and high school students in the state.
“Everybody (educated) in Minnesota should have a knowledge of the dangers that mass murder can happen. And people have to understand, to learn to live with each other,” she said. “That is only (going to happen) through understanding and through education so that they know who their neighbors are, who the people are that they’re living with, and have to learn to live with them.
“The population of Minnesota now is much more diverse, and I would say that the lack of understanding of this diversity is a danger. It is very important to know.”
Like last week’s hearing of Senate bill, SF 2442, in that body’s Senate Education Policy Committee, the House bill passed unanimously. HF 2685 now moves on to the House Education Finance Committee. The Senate bill will be heard in the Senate Education Finance Committee and the State and Local Government and Veterans Committee.
After Zaidenweber gave the last of the witness testimony, Committee Chair Rep. Laurie Pryor thanked her.
“Understand that all of us are inside applauding right now and truly grateful for this honor of hearing this testimony and being in your presence,” she said.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, who co-authored the bill with Rep. Jessica Hanson, introduced it to the committee and explained why this topic was so personal to him.
“I am the child of Holocaust survivors. And having grown up in our household, it’s sensitized me not only to my own family’s history but the history of all people who have been impacted by genocide,” he said.
Hornstein brought with him a book of interviews he did with his family who survived the Holocaust, preserved so that he could pass them on to his children and future generations.
“These stories are so critical, and why this bill is especially important now, in terms of Holocaust survivors, is that many of our survivors are older. We need to make sure that those stories are preserved again for future generations. When we lose witnesses, we lose a part of our own history.”
Hornstein cited a national survey by Echoes and Reflections that showed those who study Holocaust and genocide studies have more pluralistic attitudes and are more open to differing viewpoints of others, as well as a greater willingness to challenge intolerant behavior of others, higher critical thinking skills, and a greater sense of civic and social responsibility.
“The study of genocide studies in our schools helps students counter hate and prejudice,” he said. “And equips educators to successfully teach Minnesota’s new state social studies, standards, and benchmarks.”
Rep. Sandra Feist said those studies Hornstein mentioned spoke to her personal experience.
“I grew up in Hebrew school and we learned about the Holocaust,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that I grew up to be an immigration attorney. I think that it really stems from learning about the Holocaust from an early age and developing that sense of empathy and vigilance.”
One of the testifiers, Laura Zelle, is the director of Holocaust education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. But prior to that, she was an educator who always spent her own money on professional development, something she spoke about while noting the limited resources educators have. This bill includes funding to train teachers.
“This is incredibly necessary,” Zelle said. “Those of us who are not in the classroom cannot assume that teachers have the time, the expertise, or the funds to effectively teach these histories without our support.
“I’m fortunate today to meet and train teachers from across the country, including many in Minnesota. They have told me that through quality, professional development, and curated resources, not just a list of links from a museum or a list of links from an archive, they would be able to feel more confident teaching these subjects and they know they can do it well with support.”
Max Walstien, a ninth-grader at Wayzata High School, said the education he’s gotten so far hasn’t been enough. It led him, three years ago, to start a Change.org petition to standardize Holocaust education in Minnesota.
“The Holocaust is one of the most denied events in history, and that denial goes on to fuel antisemitism, which has been on the rise for years,” he said. “When you look at the Twin Cities, we’ve had painful anti-Jewish incidents at even local high schools. Holocaust downplay or denial, whether it is intentional or not severely hurts the Jewish people. And the best way to combat it is widespread common knowledge of what transpired.
“There are a lot of important things that students need to learn in school about history and civics. But we need to prioritize teaching about the Holocaust to ensure that it never occurs again.”
Zelle said that her mother used to tell her that if more people had spoken up during the Holocaust, her grandfather and other relatives would not have died at Auschwitz.
“She used to ask me ‘where were the voices of reason?’” Zelle said. “I know firsthand the dangers of remaining silent and indifferent in the face of oppression of others. And I personally have also seen the power of good teaching and the magic that can take place in the classroom.”
Recognizing Indigenous genocides
Hornstein’s sensitivity to genocides that took place in other communities led him to push for the bill not only to include Holocaust education but other genocides – especially indigenous genocides that took place in Minnesota.
Prof. Gabriela Spears-Rico – an expert in Native American Studies and Critical Indigenous Studies, and a Board Member of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota – helped write the bill. She comes from an indigenous community in central Mexico where the language has dwindled due to the effects of 500 years of colonialism.
“Here in Minnesota, it’s a much more recent history than that. We’re talking about three or four generations,” she said. “And that’s important because it allows us to see how these communities who have survived removal and displacement and dispossession continue to exist despite all of that, and why this education would matter here in the state.
“I think it only makes sense for this proposed legislation on educating folks about genocide to also include Dakota history, especially because it’s a bill that’s been introduced here in Minnesota as well as Ojibwe and Ho-Chunk removal which also took place in this state.”
Spears-Rico said that from an academic standpoint in the native and indigenous communities, there’s also a great amount of community-based approaches towards talking about historical trauma.
“The way that collective identity and trauma is passed down intergenerationally due to historical events, like, for example, the colonial genocide that happened here in North America and South America vis a vis European exploration of these continents,” she said. “And within the work of historical trauma, we also take into account how there’s an intergenerational impact and legacy in our communities.”
One example she gave of the long-term impact is the internalizing of the events and the damage it can do.
“Intergenerationally, there hasn’t been enough focus on healing, and there haven’t been enough resources to restore these communities and for us to heal from the violence,” she said. “And that’s why it matters to continue to take into account this history of colonialism, the way that it impacted us, and the attempts at eradicating our languages, our cultures and our peoples.”