Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Legislature pushes for mandatory genocide and Holocaust education in Washington public schools

A group of panelists in support of a bill implementing Holocaust and genocide education in schools testifies before the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee on Wednesday in Olympia.  (Lauren Rendahl / The Spokesman-Review)

April might receive a new designation in Washington: International Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month would ensure students receive Holocaust and genocide education to foster a rich historical understanding in public schools.

“We know that ignorance of history leads to repetition of history,” said Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline.

Salomon is a co-sponsor of a bill that not only designates April to genocide awareness, but mandates Holocaust and genocide instruction beginning in the 2027-28 school year and strongly encourages targeted genocide education electives for grades six through 12.

Some 64% of Millennials and Gen Z want required Holocaust education, according to a Claims Conference survey. Within that same group, 63% did not know six million Jewish people were murdered, and 36% of respondents thought only two million people died.

“Understanding the historical atrocities of the Holocaust provides students with a profound comprehension of the consequences of hatred rooted in group identity,” said Rose Nelson, a social studies curriculum specialist from Vancouver.

This proposal builds upon a previous law directing the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to implement Holocaust education in which students learn about indifference, promoting equity and taking action.

“Holocaust and genocide education teaches not ‘us and them,’ but rather teaches what can and does happen when hatred of others goes unchecked,” Paul Regelbrugge, director of education for the Holocaust Center for Humanity, said before the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee on Wednesday.

The Holocaust is the only specific genocide named in the bill; however, that does not mean schools should solely focus on this. In the spirit of diversity, equity and inclusion, Bosnia genocide survivor Selma Porca proposed amending the bill to explicitly name multiple other genocides without giving priority to one or another.

To counter the rising trends of racism, radicalization and antisemitism within the U.S., Porca said further developing the curriculum to include all groups of people is crucial.

“What is not understood is feared, and what is feared is demonized,” Hannah Lindman, a South Seattle resident, testified.

If the bill passes through the legislature, schools should hold assemblies, guest speaker presentations or specific classroom instruction relating to the Holocaust and global genocides in April to develop students’ understanding and awareness.

Spokane makes progress

The newest Spokane middle school, Carla Olman Peperzak Middle School, is named after Holocaust survivor and Spokane resident Carla Peperzak. The school’s library shelves hold copies of her memoir, “Keys of My Life,” Ryan Lancaster, Spokane Public Schools spokesman, said in an email.

In a Spokane Public Radio interview, Peperzak said she loves talking to middle schoolers because they’re curious and are open to asking her tons of questions. Peperzak became involved with the Dutch resistance movement in the 1940s and said she even knew Anne Frank, a figure many Americans associate with the Holocaust.

The Spokane Community Observance of the Holocaust committee holds an annual artwork and writing contest challenging students to study and think critically about the genocide of Jewish people, Lancaster said.

Last year, the theme for the contest was “The Dangers of Indifference: The U.S. and the Holocaust.” Ally Hendricks, a junior at University High School, won first place for the older division, and Jonah Elster, an eighth-grader at Salk Middle School, won first place in the younger division.

Central Valley High School has previously implemented Holocaust education with a semester-long elective course, according to a 2012 interview.

In 1985, Steve Bernard, a Central Valley High School teacher, developed this elective course dedicated to Holocaust education after he visited the Auschwitz concentration camp. Although Bernard retired, he passed his expertise along to a previous student and teacher at Central Valley, Geoff Arte, who said he felt “lucky” to have a semester-long course instead of just three days in a history class.

Arte called the elective “college-level,” as the curriculum at Central Valley focused on the rise of the Nazi Party, concentration camps, Jewish life in the ghettos and the aftermath of WWII.