“EVEN IN DARKNESS IT IS POSSIBLE TO CREATE LIGHT” — Elie Wiesel
New state law requires Holocaust education for middle and high schoolers
Shad Fanta, a sixth grade teacher at Waunakee Middle School, teaches his students the importance of learning about the different perspectives across history. Photography by Kalli Anderson
In 2018, a picture of high school students from Baraboo, Wisconsin, went viral on Twitter — and not in a good way.
The photo showed a large group of boys standing on the steps of the Sauk County Courthouse grinning and giving what looked like the Nazi salute to the camera. Within the group of about 50, there was only one person who seemed uncomfortable with the gesture; everyone else in the group appeared to be caught in mid-laugh, their arms raised high above their heads.
The Nazi salute, one of the most recognizable symbols of the Nazi movement of the 1930s and 1940s, remains a jarring act of antisemitism. Back in 2018, this incident gave Baraboo, Wisconsin, national news attention, but now, more and more such acts make global headlines.
Antisemitic acts have been on the rise in recent years. The Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents have increased by 115% since last year. In Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron said antisemitism in France is the worst it’s been since the Nazi era. Closer to home, in Madison during the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, armed guards were stationed outside synagogues in preparation for the worst.
Although it’s impossible to name one reason for the rise in antisemitism across the globe, experts do have some theories. Many attribute this increase in aggression towards Jews because of the increased violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
But political issues aside, current generations know less and less about the Holocaust as compared to their parents.
A recent study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany surveyed knowledge of the Holocaust among Millennials and Generation Z across the U.S. The study found that 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and nearly 20% of respondents thought that Jews themselves caused the Holocaust.
The study found that 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and nearly 20% of respondents thought that Jews themselves caused the Holocaust.
It’s hard to imagine that the gravity of the Holocaust — often called the darkest time in human history — could be forgotten by younger generations. Yet many are concerned about a rise in antisemitic activity, including in Wisconsin, which prompted the passage of a new state law requiring that the Holocaust, and other genocides, must be taught in middle and high school.
Wisconsin is only the 18th state to pass such a law.
This bipartisan bill was signed by Gov. Tony Evers in late April 2021. The signing took place at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, which also endorsed the bill. With antisemitic incidents more than doubling over the past two years in Milwaukee alone, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation is hopeful that the bill will help stop these rising numbers. The federation’s own Holocaust Education Resource Center will consult with schools across the state to help educate students.
State Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) was the author of the Holocaust education bill. She says the bill came about when it did for a reason.
“The reality is that we have seen over the past several years an uptick in antisemitic incidents, and research that had been done recently, showed that young people were not learning about the Holocaust, and that staggering numbers of young people did not know some of the critical facts,” Subeck says.
Subeck grew up in a Jewish household and was part of a Jewish youth group, so conversations about the Holocaust were a part of her childhood. Because of her upbringing, it never occurred to her that other children were not getting the same Holocaust education to which she had been so accustomed.
“I think for me now more than ever, this is vital,” Subeck says. “It’s always a good time to learn from our past and learn how to do better, and to take those lessons and put them to use in our daily lives. But beyond that, I think it’s particularly timely as fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors are able to share their stories, that we make a concentrated effort to ensure that history is not only taught but therefore is never repeated.”
“I think it’s particularly timely as fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors are able to share their stories, that we make a concentrated effort to ensure that history is not only taught but therefore is never repeated.”
— Lisa Subeck
Impact on students
The significance of this bill isn’t lost on Simone Schweber, an education and Jewish studies professor at UW–Madison. She said when she first started in this field, people were already worried about the end of the generation of Holocaust survivors — and now that time has come. With the Holocaust survivors aging quickly, there will not be another couple of decades with them around. This bill is a first step in helping to memorialize survivors and their stories.
Additionally, Holocaust education can provide valuable lessons to students. Brandon Bloch, assistant professor of history at UW–Madison, believes that Holocaust education is highly relevant to students and gives them the tools to look critically at their own government.
“What leads large numbers of people to believe in fanatical political movements or to see radical movements, like national socialism, as the answer to their problems? Those questions are not only historical, they have a bearing on the contemporary world and I think it provides a warning for us in the present day,” Bloch says.
For history to never repeat itself, he says, younger generations must learn the steps it took to get there.
Holocaust education can also affect students on a personal level. Social studies teacher Matt Lambrecht from West De Pere High School, a public school located 10 minutes outside of Green Bay, says, “I would say in the last five years, we’ve had so many more kids who feel okay with saying, hey, I’m part of the LGBT community. Can you put up an LGBT safe space in your room? … And I just feel like that never happened.” This noticeable culture shift is surprising for Lambrecht, who has worked as a social studies teacher for the past 18 years.
Lambrecht says he sees these kids, who typically are in the minority group at West De Pere High School, feel proud of who they are. He says this wasn’t the case years ago. In fact, he actually attributes this shift in attitudes in part to teaching of topics such as the Holocaust.
“And I think part of that is the Holocaust does some of that same thing. It helps people want to advocate for themselves, so bad things like this don’t continue to happen,” Lambrecht says.
“What leads large numbers of people to believe in fanatical political movements or to see radical movements, like national socialism, as the answer to their problems? Those questions are not only historical, they have a bearing on the contemporary world and I think it provides a warning for us in the present day.”
— Brandon Bloch
Implications in the classroom
Because the bill was just passed in April, teachers are still figuring out how to integrate it into their classrooms.
To some degree, how to teach about the Holocaust will still be at the discretion of the school district. The Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee is there for schools to use, but it’s hard to say how each school will tackle such a tough, intense topic. Schweber notes that teachers will need to prepare themselves, not just the material, when getting ready to talk about a topic as deep and disturbing as the Holocaust.
“When you’re teaching about large-scale violence and mass trauma and genocidal atrocity, there are all these skills that go into it and all these other dispositions that go into making it powerful,” Schweber says. “It’s not just teaching about the facts of what happened, that’s not what typically moves people to think more empathetically, or to choose to care more or to risk themselves in some way to do something that’s good or right.”
For many teachers, it’s up in the air how the curriculum will change to incorporate Holocaust education. Shad Fanta, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Waunakee Middle School in a Madison suburb, says since the bill is so recent, it will not affect him or his classroom for some time. For his current curriculum to be affected, there would need to be a change at the high school level. In Waunakee, students already learn about the Holocaust in sixth grade. So, for Fanta, this new bill may not affect his classroom at all.
Ultimately, the goal of the new law is more for people to understand the stories from the Holocaust so that an event of its magnitude will never happen again. Education can be an effective weapon against further injustice, and the passage of this bill is helping to shed light on the importance of Holocaust education.
However, there is still work to do. And Schweber is not done yet.
“We have to take what we can get,” she says. “Absolutely. But we have to fight for the things that we don’t get and we have to keep fighting for the things that people need and deserve.”