Powerful Lessons: New law requires Michigan schools to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides.
It was a moving experience for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as he glimpsed history’s darkest chapter during a private tour of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.
“It strikes you in the heart,” Snyder said. “Things such as the boxcar [used to transport Jews and other Holocaust victims during World War II.] When you walk in there and you understand 100 people crammed into that space … plus, the symbolism and the true meaning behind the building’s architecture. It’s very powerful.”
The governor visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, in 2013. But, the June 27 visit was his first trip to Michigan’s Holocaust museum. And he was there to make history. Gov. Snyder took part in the ceremonial signing of House Bill 4493, sponsored by State Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, which requires Michigan school districts and public school academies to provide genocide education, including lessons about the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The legislature recommends a combined total of six hours of instruction for students in grades 8-12 beginning in the 2016-2017 school year.
“Our next generation of leaders needs to have the wherewithal to recognize and help prevent widespread harm to their fellow men and women,” Snyder wrote after officially signing the bill June 13. “Teaching the students of Michigan about genocide is important because we should remember and learn about these terrible events in our past while continuing to work toward creating a more tolerant society.”
The new law makes Michigan one of only seven states that mandate genocide education. Rhode Island’s governor signed a similar measure last month; Illinois was the first state to enact such a law in 1990. California, New Jersey, New York and Florida also require Holocaust and genocide education.
“Our future will depend on how we teach the next generation,” said Cheryl Guyer, the Holocaust center’s interim executive director. “The dream of ‘never again’ is honored through the passage of House Bill 4493. We are grateful to our Michigan legislators and our governor. We look forward to teaching 400,000 Michigan high school students a year about the Holocaust and inspiring them to confront bullying, hatred and racism to create a more humane world.”
About 120 people were on hand to witness the ceremonial signing, including several Holocaust survivors. Edith Maniker, 85, of Southfield, a Kindertransport survivor, was among them. In 1939, her parents put her on a train from Germany to England, a gut-wrenching decision that surely saved her life. (Approximately 10,000 children and infants were saved through the rescue operation between 1938-1940). Edith was just 8 years old the last time she ever saw her mother and father.
“My sister had gone two weeks before,” she said. “My parents told me, ‘You’ll have a wonderful vacation together and we’ll see you in a few weeks.’ When you’re 8 years old and your parents tell you that, you believe it.”
Maniker initially lived with distant relatives and was shuffled to and from various foster homes and a refugee hostel 10 different times. In 1943, she was reunited with her sister; they moved to Detroit together in 1947.
“If your whole family has been murdered, you look for family,” she explained. “My sister and I had an aunt and uncle in Detroit, so we came to Detroit.”
For the last 23 years, Maniker has served as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial Center, sharing her story and singlehandedly helping to educate tens of thousands of students from Michigan and other states. She stood onstage with the governor, several lawmakers and others during the event.
“I am hoping [Michigan students] will learn not only the history, but along with it some compassion,” Maniker said. “I am thrilled this bill was signed. I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
Passionate supporters are credited with helping the new law become a reality. In 2013, attorney Lori Talsky Zekelman assembled a team of individuals and organizations within the Jewish community to form Genocide and Holocaust Education Now! The coalition drafted the initial bill and promoted the legislation. She and her husband, Alan Zekelman, are major supporters of the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus.
“I was inspired and impassioned by the profound sadness and shock I experience when pondering recent or ongoing genocides, incidences of intolerance and our apparent inability to eradicate inhumane conduct in a meaningful way,” Talsky Zekelman says. “This legislation is important to me because I believe that through the right kind of education we can inspire our children to become empathetic and tolerant members of society, capable of acting appropriately when faced with moral dilemmas.”
Talsky Zekelman says she felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude during the signing ceremony “for having the opportunity to be a vessel for tikkun olam (world repair)” and for all of the assistance from and efforts by others to accomplish this project.
Now that the bill is signed, she hopes Snyder will create a commission to steer genocide education in the direction of helping children understand and work toward preventing bullying and intolerance. The governor is tasked with appointing a 15-member council on genocide and Holocaust education. “Members shall be individuals who have a particular interest or expertise in genocide education or Holocaust education, or both,” the law states. The two-year advisory committee is expected to be assembled within the next few months.
“The bully of today could be the person that helps lead or is part of the core group of people that lead to genocide because they’re not respecting someone else’s humanity,” Snyder told the Detroit Jewish News. “If you look at our country today, there are far too many angry people. We spend way too much time fighting and blaming one another and being angry over this topic or that topic. That’s not what made this country great.” *
By Robin Schwartz | Contributing Writer