Local educators are voicing strong support for a bill in the Legislature that would require Oregon school districts to teach students about the Holocaust and other acts of genocide.
While the Holocaust is already a part of the curriculum of a large number of Oregon school districts, Anne Marie Fritz, a La Grande Middle School social studies teacher, believes the legislation, Senate Bill 664, is important because it brings increased attention to the atrocities of World War II.
“We do not want to forget history,” Fritz said. “Otherwise society will repeat its mistakes of the past.”
La Grande High School history teacher John Lamoreau echoes this sentiment. Lamoreau said he doesn’t know of any high school history teachers in Oregon who do not teach the Holocaust but, like Fritz, believes the bill is bringing the subject to the forefront at an important time. He noted there is an increasing number of Nazi rallies and marches in the United States.
“We need to keep teaching about what we have emerged from,” Lamoreau said. “We (as a society) are forgetting too much of our past.”
Tina Thurman, a LMS English teacher, agrees. Thurman, who teaches a unit on the Holocaust with LMS social studies teacher Holli Leavitt, said there are still people across the nation today who do not know about the Holocaust. She noted one of the videos she shows students is of adults being interviewed who have never heard of Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp in Poland.
Thurman said this is why the effort to draw increased attention to the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of about six million European Jews and 17 million people altogether, is critical.
Lamoreau, when discussing the Holocaust with his students, tells them about the events that led up to it and emphasizes that we have to be vigilant or something like that could happen again. He noted that respecting people of different races and ethnicities is essential to preventing atrocities of a similar nature. He said genocide starts with prejudice and, unbeknownst to many, Oregon has a long history of it.
He pointed out that in 1922 Walter Pierce, who was from Union County, was elected governor after receiving strong backing from the Klu Klux Klan. Pierce then worked with a Legislature heavily influenced by the KKK, one which passed discriminatory legislation that was later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lamroreau pointed out that prejudice on a national level reared its head during WWII when Japanese Americans on the West Coast were sent to interment camps because it was feared they were helping Japan, which the United States was at war with. Lamoreau said this was done even though many of Japanese Americans were among our most patriotic citizens, individuals who fought bravely for the United States during WWII. This included the members that the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up exclusively of Japanese Americans. The 442nd won 18,000 awards during WWII, including about 9,000 Purple Hearts and 4,000 Bronze Star medals.
“It was the most decorated unit in U.S. military history,” Lamoreau said. “It was absolutely amazing.”
Lamoreau also noted that the United States’ laws enforcing racial discrimination were in place until the relatively recent past. For example, some Southern states did not allow mixed race couples to live together as late as 1967.
The LHS history teacher urges students to keep from letting such racial prejudice take a foothold again.
“We have to be on guard,” he said.
Thurman, who like Lamoreau encourages people to step up when they see discrimination, quotes the the legendary Jewish writer Ellie Weasel, when asking students to be vigilant.
“He said, ‘If you do not do anything, you are part of the problem,” the LMS teacher said.
La Grande Middle School students learn about Holocaust by reading a series of works including the script of the play “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which is based on the diary of a Jewish teenage girl whose family hid from the Nazis in the Netherlands for more than a year before they were caught and sent to death camps.
“Students (at LMS) can relate well to her because they are about the same age she was (when she wrote her diary),” Fritz said.
Students at LHS also study “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a work Lamoreau has a link to because five decades ago he visited the home where the Frank family hid in Amsterdam.
“I looked out the same tiny window she did,” Lamoreau said. “I feel a connection.”
Senate Bill 664 was introduced by Sen. Rob Wagner (D-Lake Oswego) at the urging of Claire Sarnowski, a high school freshman in Lake Oswego. Sarnowski encouraged Wagner to introduce the legislation because of her friendship with Alter Wiener, a Holocaust survivor in his early 90s who lived in Oregon and died in traffic accident in 2018. Wiener had shared his story as a Holocaust survivor with hundreds of school and community groups in Oregon.
SB 664 was approved unanimously by the Senate last week and is now in the House. If passed, the bill would take effect in the 2020-21 school year.
See complete story in Monday's Observer