Holocaust Education Fails as Hate Rises

Last year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released the results of a survey which showed that one of the most horrific tragedies in the last century seems to be fading from the collective American memory. Twenty-two percent of millennials polled said that they were unaware of the Holocaust, 66 percent could not identify what Auschwitz was, and 41 percent of all respondents did not know of the infamous concentration camp.

Along with this ignorance of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, “the longest hatred” as it’s called, is swelling in the U.S. and worldwide. The Anti Defamation league tracks worldwide anti-Semitism, and has found that in 2017, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased by 60 percent from the previous year – the largest increase in modern times. Further, they found that incidents in K-12 schools increased by a stunning 90 percent.

Last year, we were served a chilling reminder of where the hatred of an entire group of people inevitably leads when a gunman murdered eleven Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue; and just last weekend a gunman opened fire in a Poway, CA synagogue, injuring several and killing one. The Pittsburgh killer was motivated by conspiracy theories regarding Jewish world domination that circulate online, proliferated by neo-Nazis and the alt-right. Holocaust denial and world domination theories have become more prevalent as of late, and Corvallis has not been immune, as evidenced by OSU Nazi Andrew Oswalt’s recent hate crimes and Jimmy Marr’s “Holocaust is Hokum” panel truck. These theories may be finding fertile ground due to a lack of public education; it stands to reason that one might be more likely to believe the Holocaust never happened if they had never learned about it in the first place.

Oregon lawmakers have taken note of this problem as well. Senate Bill 664, which will require all Oregon school districts to teach a Holocaust curriculum, has passed the Senate 27-0 and is awaiting approval in the House of Representatives. The bill will mandate all districts to begin teaching about the Holocaust in 2020, and also tasks the State Board of Education with creating a standardized statewide curriculum that will be implemented in 2025. On April 19, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill “strongly encouraging” schools to teach Holocaust education. Ten states, including California, New York, and Florida, have laws mandating Holocaust education.

Local Schools
The Corvallis School District does reportedly teach K-12 students about the Holocaust, but had neglected to fulfill the Advocate’s request to view the curriculum at the time of publishing. After two weeks waiting for a response from the Corvallis Schools, we received an email from district spokesperson Julie Catala, and she admits, “Information about the Holocaust is taught by “pockets” of teachers in the District; however, it is not consistent and we do not have any formal curriculum for that specific topic.”

Catala also said, “Corvallis School District teachers teach to the Oregon standards.  The standard that is most closely aligned to the Holocaust topic says students must identify and analyze the nature of systemic oppression on ethnic and religious groups, as well as other traditionally marginalized groups, in the pursuit of justice and equality in Oregon, the United States and the world.”

We reached out to parents, and were able to talk with a mother of a middle school and high school student in the district who is part of the Jewish community. She chose to remain anonymous, and was clear that her opinions do not represent those of the entire Jewish community in Corvallis.

According to this mother, Corvallis used to teach The Diary of Anne Frank in fifth grade, but pulled the book from the curriculum when a parent, also a member of the Jewish community, expressed concern that the material in the book was too extreme for their child to be subjected to at that age. The mother we spoke to explained that while she finds it exceedingly important to teach children about the Holocaust, different parents have differing ideas about the appropriate age to introduce their children to the concept of genocide.

The mother told us that, to her knowledge, the curriculum seems to revolve around different works of Holocaust-centered literature. Her high school-aged student was assigned Night by Elie Wiesel in ninth grade honors literature, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in tenth grade honors literature. While she’s glad that the curriculum touches on the Holocaust, she spoke of incidents in the schools that suggest that there is something more to be desired in the local education system. She said that even an incident like a middle school child drawing a swastika in the condensation of a school bus window can have a tremendous impact on a child of Jewish descent, and she wants other children to call out such behavior as wrong.

As a member of the Jewish community, she is keenly aware of the threats of violence that her community faces from white nationalists, and expressed concern for other communities as well. She thinks Holocaust education might help children recognize bigotry toward all groups, and specifically mentioned perceiving similarities between the Nazi’s anti-Jewish rhetoric, and the rhetoric against Latino immigrants coming from our own government.

“I think that Holocaust education could be a good thing,” she said. “Not just to address anti-Semitism, but to address the idea at how do we prevent the steps that move people toward genocide in the world, prevent that dehumanization of others, and prevent that otherization of human beings.”

We spoke with another local parent, also of Jewish descent, who has found the Holocaust education in Corvallis schools to be far less than adequate.

“My daughter once came home from her 5th grade class at Mountain View and told me the only reference to the holocaust in the history textbook they were using was that, ‘Hitler did not like the Jews,’” said the parent. “I confirmed this, and was shocked. When I asked the teacher about it, she said she could see how a ‘connoisseur of history’ would find the book inadequate.” 

A New Way to Teach
For over 10 years, The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect has been advancing a program called “The 50-State Holocaust and Genocide Education Initiative,” calling for all states to pass legislation similar to SB 664. The Anne Frank Center partners with other organizations that have created comprehensive Holocaust curriculum, such as Echoes and Reflections, who have compiled resources from the ADL, the USC Shoah Foundation, and the Vad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

Echoes and Reflections’ curriculum goes far beyond sharing a quick history and assigning a Diary of Anne Frank book report — the curriculum that many of us experienced in school. They have created a detailed, ten-unit program that teaches the history of anti-Semitism, contextualizes history, and is designed to foster empathy within the students who complete the course. Within the course are many short videos of interviews with Holocaust survivors, many of whom have since passed away. Judging from the previously discussed statistics, it seems like the memory of the Holocaust is dying with its survivors, but their stories might be the most effective way to properly convey the horrors that they were subjected to. Six million murdered Jews is a statistic, but a man telling the story of throwing himself into a mass grave in a desperate attempt to survive, to later crawl out from under the dead and dying bodies of his friends and family, teaches students much more than a number ever could.

The Course
The very first thing that Echoes and Reflections teaches is that the Holocaust was a choice, a cornerstone of the program that prevails throughout the entire course. Hitler made a choice, his soldiers made a choice, Germany made a choice, the people who disagreed with the Nazis but said nothing made a choice.

The unit goes on to teach about Kristallnacht Pogrom, or “The Night of the Broken Glass,” an anti-Jewish riot, organized by the Reich, in response to the assassination of a German official in Paris by a Jewish teenager. Dozens of Jews were killed, 250 synagogues were burned, and thousands of Jewish businesses were looted and destroyed; the broken glass was in reference to the shattered storefront windows of Jewish-owned businesses. 30,000 Jewish men, many of whom were community leaders, were arrested immediately after and sent to concentration camps. A video of holocaust survivor Kurt Messerschmidt is shared with students, where he recalls Hitler’s brown shirts forcing an extremely elderly Jewish business owner to pick up the tiny shards of glass, one by one.

“I’m sure… that some of the people standing there disapproved of what the Nazis did, but their disapproval was only silence,” said Messerschmidt. “Silence is what did the harm.”

From there, the curriculum dives into anti-Semitism and its origins. It explains the bigoted 1903 text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the most widely distributed anti-Semitic publication of all time, how the tropes contained within were weaponized by Hitler, and even how it was supported by Henry Ford in the U.S. Students are taught how to recognize stereotypes and caricatures, and how they can be used to dehumanize a group of people through the use of propaganda.

Within this context, the course reveals another cornerstone of the program, and discusses those with the courage to stand up to hate. It jumps forward to the mid 90s and explains the origins of the “Not in Our Town” movement in Billings, Montana. White supremacists targeted the city during their initiative to create a white ethnostate in the northwest U.S., and began vandalizing the homes and business of Jewish, Black, and Native American citizens. The people of Billings stood in solidarity with their neighbors through a series of community actions, sending a strong message to the racists that their intimidation, harassment, and violence was not welcome. “Those who were not targets became allies to those who were,” reads a handout distributed to students.

The course then details the gradual ostracization of the Jews, and their exclusion from daily German life. A handout provides a timeline showing the escalating anti-Jewish policies that began in 1933 when the Nazis rose to power. The course explains the gradual stripping away of Jewish rights, and offers commentary from survivors on how their friends had begun to turn their backs on them, either being slowly indoctrinated by Nazi ideology, or too afraid to speak against it.

The program offers a visual resource called “The Pyramid of Hate,” explaining how feelings of bigotry lead to violence. At the bottom of the pyramid lies biased attitudes, like scapegoating and accepting of stereotypes, which leads to acts of bias, and then discrimination. At the top of the pyramid sits bias-motivated violence: assaults, arson, terrorism, and murder. When first approaching the subject matter of the Holocaust, some students can be confused as to how any society could allow something so horrific to occur. These first three units attempt to show students how gradual indoctrination and normalization of hate leads to genocide.

The course then dives deep into the evils of the Final Solution, showing videos of women and children being led into gas chambers, testimony of survivors recalling being ripped from the arms of their parents at death camps, and details of the mobile killing squads and mass graves. The program also teaches about the Final Solution’s architects, and even how Nazi ideology inspired the locations of concentration and extermination camps.

After learning of the horrors of genocide, students learn about the people who fought back: Jews who escaped the Reich but remained in its territory and resisted the Nazis spiritually and culturally, and others who escaped into forests to become armed Partisans who utilized guerrilla tactics to disrupt Nazi operations. The course is careful to convey to students the definition of a bystander, or somebody who stood by and did nothing to help, but pays special attention to non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save others. “The light of their deeds shines forth through the overwhelming darkness of the war years,” reads a student handout.

Hate Today
In 2019, examples of anti-Semitic propaganda and other forms of extreme hate are not confined to the darkest corners of the internet. Even on Facebook, white supremacists are creating and sharing memes featuring grotesque Jewish caricatures similar to the ones that Hitler and Goebbels circulated throughout Nazi Germany. On YouTube, racists peddle conspiracy theories of Jewish world domination and Holocaust denial, and these images and videos are finding a youthful audience. Would a young person be so quick to believe that the Holocaust never happened had they been taught a robust curriculum similar to Echoes and Reflections?

As the course ends, it teaches students about modern antisemitism: how to recognize it and stand against it. Many believe that the longest hatred will never truly end, but schools may have the ability to keep it from surging to the level we are witnessing currently. Further, the dehumanization and demonization of entire groups of people continues to be a go-to move for power-seeking authoritarians — a technique that continues to be effective. If students can learn the mechanics of hate, they might be instrumental to stamping out genocide for good.



Local Examples and Institutional Impacts

We reached out to the Corvallis School District requesting information on their Holocaust curriculum several times, starting about three weeks before our Holocaust education story ran, and received a short response the day before the issue went to print. They said that “information about the Holocaust is taught by “pockets” of teachers in the District; however, it is not consistent and we do not have any formal curriculum for that specific topic.”

Teaching children about hate and genocide is a life and death matter. Over the weekend, a 19-year-old gunman walked into a Poway, California synagogue and opened fire; and six months ago, 11 were killed in a similar attack in Pittsburgh. These attacks are the result of centuries-old bigotry against Jewish people, a prejudice that is seemingly undying. The most fatal acts of hate are widely publicized, but thousands of hate-inspired attacks and events happen every year to Jews and other targeted groups.

In 2018, Andrew Oswalt of Corvallis, then a representative in the OSU student government, was arrested for affixing racist stickers to the vehicles of social justice activists. He also distributed anti-Semitic fliers at the scene of the crime. When Oswalt was arrested, he was found to be in possession of four firearms, which were confiscated. He was convicted of a felony hate crime and sentenced to 40 days in jail.

This wasn’t Oswalt’s first time distributing racist and anti-Semitic propaganda; he had been arrested previously for clandestinely distributing similar fliers at the U of O campus in Eugene. During that incident, he was in the company of other known area neo-Nazi Jimmy Marr. Marr drives a panel truck emblazoned with a swastika and anti-Semitic phrases, commonly “Holocaust is hokum.” The truck was spotted around Corvallis several times during the Oswalt ordeal, including during Oswalt’s bid for reelection to the ASOSU. Oswalt was defeated in that election, but he did get several votes, despite his well-known Nazi ties.

In December, Marr and an accomplice drove his panel truck into downtown Corvallis and was confronted. Four individuals, three of which being trans women, arrived with a sheet to hold in front of the hateful messaging displayed on Marr’s truck. The incident devolved into a melee, and some of the protesters were badly beaten. When police arrived, Marr’s accomplice fled and Marr himself was suffering from some kind of medical incident. The police arrested the four protesters on charges that were later dropped. Neither Marr nor his accomplice were ever arrested or charged.

Anonymous sources have told The Advocate that Marr’s accomplice was Corvallis resident David Woods. Woods has been photographed at rinkadink Nazi rallies held on Marr’s property, and while marching with Oswalt at right-wing protests in Portland. Woods used to run an unregistered business called Oregon Firearms Defense through the Albany Pistol and Rifle Club, and offered weapons training to other area fascists. He has at least one child in the Corvallis public school system.

Acts of anti-Semitic vandalism also occur in the area, one example being the swastikas that were spray painted on a street in Monmouth last year. The police said the act was not a hate crime because force was not used and no direct threats were made. Salem Rabbi Eli Herb disagreed with the police’s assessment, saying the swastika symbol is “like a death threat, basically.”

Recent times have seen a resurgence of bigotry toward other racial and religious groups as well. We recently revealed that a local Oregon House legislator, Mike Nearman of HB-23, was the Vice President of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, an SPLC-identified hate group. This group spreads propaganda about Latinx immigrants that mirrors the hateful rhetoric used by the Nazi regime to eventually exterminate millions. At a recent town hall, Nearman fear mongered about immigrants spreading disease, and told constituents to report perceived immigrants to the county for voter fraud.

Teaching a robust curriculum detailing the Holocaust, genocide, and hate surely would not eliminate “the longest hatred,” but it might be a start to creating a world with far less of these heinous events and institutionalized bigotry. Concerned citizens can contact the school district at (541) 757-5811.

By Jay Sharpe