Pennsylvania Lawmakers Argue Over Making Holocaust Studies Mandatory in State School

Only five U.S. states currently mandate Holocaust education: push to add Pennsylvania to list raises concerns over backlash, cost, and effectiveness.

Trudy Klein Gompers was 18 months old in 1938, when her parents spirited her out of Vienna just ahead of Kristallnacht - the night of violence widely seen as a turning point in the Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe.

She and her family spent two years in a British internment camp, and several more in London before making their way to New York. Her grandparents were not as fortunate: They were deported and eventually killed in a concentration camp.

Gompers joined more than three dozen Holocaust survivors Monday at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, where lawmakers are grappling with a sensitive issue:

Should learning about the Holocaust be mandatory for Pennsylvania students? Or should it merely be recommended?

The question could come to a head this week after bubbling in the legislature for more than a year. It has already caused a rift in the Jewish community, and debate across the political spectrum.

Representative Brendan Boyle (Democrat, Phila.), who authored the original bill, wants the commonwealth to join five other states, including New York and New Jersey, that mandate Holocaust education. Boyle says it is vital to teach the lesson of the Holocaust because the issue of genocide remains relevant.

"Learning about the mistakes of our human history makes it less likely that we will repeat them," Boyle said. "We cannot make these lessons optional. As more of the Holocaust's survivors pass away, we need to make sure that their stories and experiences live on."

Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, said his group prefers a different route. The coalition does not think the plan to require Holocaust teaching is viable. It wants to help teachers learn how to best teach the Holocaust by restoring the $60,000 in dedicated funding stripped from the education budget in 2009.

"The political climate of Pennsylvania shows that a precedent of a course curriculum mandate won't move through both chambers and be signed into law," he said.

Some are concerned that mandating curriculum would open the door to similar requirements for more controversial and divisive subjects, such as creationism.

Among the opponents of mandatory Holocaust education is the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the teachers union, which says another unfunded mandate would prove too costly at a time of deep education cuts.

"We certainly recognize the value of Holocaust-related education, but the move to make this a mandate has moved our position," said association spokesman David Broderic.

The legislature has veered back and forth on the issue.

A version of the bill that passed the House last spring made teaching about the Holocaust a recommendation - not a requirement - for the state's 500 school districts.

But an amended bill - one that strengthened the language and made it mandatory - was approved in the Senate Appropriations Committee in December.

That version could receive a vote by the full Senate as early as this week, a staff member said. Then it would have to be reconciled with the version in the House.

How much it would cost to mandate the curriculum isn't clear.

Boyle said that although he understands the aversion to mandates, he doesn't buy the argument that his legislation would represent a slippery slope. He bemoaned the fact that there is disagreement when everyone shares the same goal.

"We all want to ensure the stories are told," he said. "As time marches on, it becomes more important. This is the last generation of survivors to tell their stories."

Gompers said she has never forgotten the experience of fleeing her homeland and being interned as an enemy alien.

"It affected our whole lives," said Gompers, who lives in Elkins Park and shares her life story regularly with schoolchildren in Philadelphia through a project with the Holocaust Awareness Museum. "It made me feel how important it is to make testimony. When we don't trust each other, it causes wars."

The Pennsylvania Capitol, in downtown Harrisburg.Credit: Kev72

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