Words are inadequate to describe the depth of evil visited upon humanity at the Nazi complex in Auschwitz. More than 1.3 million people were sent there from May 1940 to January 1945, the vast number of them Jews. More than 1.1 million people were murdered. Of the Nazis’ vast network of prisons and death chambers, the ones built there, 40 miles west of Krakow, were among the most notorious.
Some 76 years after the camp was liberated by the Russian Army, how could it be that its name would be referenced so glibly on a Massachusetts high school football field, as was discovered more than a week ago in Duxbury? Trivial references not only to Auschwitz but other aspects of Jewish culture — the Duxbury High School team is said to have used reference to rabbis, dreidels and Auschwitz to signal plays — were despicable acts of anti-Semitism. The team’s longtime coach was rightly fired as a result.
But the episode illustrates a problem deeper than the insensitivity and racism of teenage football players and the coaches who abet them. That is the growing disconnect between today’s culture and youth and the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. Our collective memory of the Holocaust — and, more importantly, the empathy and compassion for victims that comes with that memory — is slipping just out of reach. As survivors die, our understanding passes from a witnessed event to something more abstract in the pages of history.
We simply cannot let that happen.
Jews in Israel and elsewhere this week mark an annual commemoration of the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah. It would be an opportune time for lawmakers in Massachusetts to revive a bill requiring Holocaust education in our schools.
The need for such legislation is empirical, and not just because of what transpired in Duxbury. An exhaustive study reported last fall by the Conference on Jewish Material Clams Against Germany found a “worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge.” The survey of more than 10,000 young adults, ages 18 to 39, found nearly half could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto created by Nazi Germany — about the same number who acknowledged seeing messages of Holocaust denial or distortion online. Nearly one-third grossly underestimated the number of Jews murdered. One in 10 said Jews were responsible for the genocide.
More than half of those surveyed — and more than one-third of the 200 people surveyed in Massachusetts — could not identify Auschwitz.
Even though Massachusetts was identified as one of the top 10 states in terms of Holocaust awareness, it is not among the 16 that require Holocaust education in public schools.
That's not for a lack of trying. The state Senate last year passed a bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael J. Rodrigues, D-Westport, that would’ve codified the need for a curriculum covering genocide and the Holocaust in middle and high schools. That’s not to say material isn’t presented now, but the choice of whether and how to teach it is largely up to local school districts. Despite last year's unanimous vote in the Senate, the measure never emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee.
Massachusetts lawmakers need only look to their colleagues to the north for inspiration. Last July, accompanied by Holocaust survivor Kati Preston, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed a law that included a measure “ensuring our children learn from the past and that the atrocities of the Holocaust are not forgotten.”
Preston, who lost 28 members of her family to Auschwitz, hid from the Nazis in a hay barn. She grew up in Hungary and Romania before moving to Israel, and she now lives in New Hampshire, where she gives talks in schools and other venues about her experience and her loss.
On her website, Preston both acknowledges the urgency of her mission, as "one of the last few survivors from that horrendous period,” as well as her optimism in young people who are more informed and “willing to listen, accept and embrace tolerance" than maybe their parents or grandparents.
After last summer's bill signing, she was quoted in a release by Sununu's office as saying, “I honestly think this generation of kids today will save the world. I want to give them the opportunity to hear, to learn — to learn the history of what can happen with prejudice and how far it can be pushed.”
Let’s hope she is right. With greater understanding of the everlasting scar left upon the human race by the Holocaust, one can only hope there will be far fewer incidents of hatred like those perpetrated on the football field in Duxbury.