Plenty of college kids have trouble remembering some of the complex subjects they studied in high school and middle school. At first, the Pennsylvania college students interviewed by Rhonda Fink-Whitman in 94 Maidens – The Mandate Video seem like they just forgot a few things from their high school history unit on the Holocaust.
But they didn’t forget. They never learned it.
Fink-Whitman is the daughter of Holocaust survivor Tania Fink, whose testimony is in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, and the author of 94 Maidens, a novel about the Holocaust inspired by her mother’s story. In her home state of Pennsylvania, it is not mandatory for public schools to teach the Holocaust. That’s what Fink-Whitman wants to change.
In her video, Fink-Whitman explains that currently only five states – California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida – make Holocaust education mandatory.
“What’s taking Pennsylvania so long? The Holocaust was 70 years ago,” Fink-Whitman says in the video. “This is the last generation of survivors, liberators, eyewitnesses. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.”
She adds that as an educator, mother, daughter of a survivor and a human being, she’s worried because “genocide is still going on today, right now. As you watch this video. The lessons of the Holocaust still haven’t been learned.”
To demonstrate how public schools in Pennsylvania are failing their students, Fink-Whitman asks a dozen students from four Pennsylvania public universities basic questions about the Holocaust and World War II, such as “What was the Holocaust?” “Can you name a concentration camp?” “Who were the Allies?” and “What is genocide?”
The students don’t know the answers. The only two students who answer all her questions correctly, however, say they went to high school in New Jersey and New York – where, unlike Pennsylvania, they learned about the Holocaust in school.
USC Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith said that Fink-Whitman’s video is a stark reminder that we can never take for granted that future generations will learn the lessons of the past unless we take the time to teach them. The students’ lack of knowledge reflects poorly on us, not them, he said.
“Education is a valuable key to preventing such dark events from happening again. At the USC Shoah Foundation, we have seen time and again how interacting with the 52,000 testimonies in our Visual History Archive can impact young people in deep, profound and positive ways,” Smith said.
One hundred ninety seven students and educators in Pennsylvania are registered on IWitness, USC Shoah Foundation’s educational website, and 1,515 teachers in the state have attended trainings for Echoes and Reflections, a Holocaust curriculum guide co-produced with the Anti-Defamation League and Yad Vashem.
“Even as those horrific events recede into history, we must never allow ourselves to wane in our efforts to teach future generations. Only by facing our past failures as human beings can we hope to make better moral choices in the future,” Smith said. “The Holocaust showed us what we are capable of. If we don’t confront its brutality, prejudice and apathy head on, how can we hope to learn from it?”
Smith said Pennsylvania’s new legislation, HB 1424, which provides for the development of Holocaust and genocide curriculum and teacher training for grades 6-12, is a step in the right direction.