At public hearing, Holocaust bill has support from speakers, legislators

MADISON — Legislators on a key committee expressed support for a Holocaust education bill at a hearing Wednesday, despite some admitted misgivings about imposing mandates.

They were also riveted as Holocaust survivor Eva Zaret spoke. She told members of the Assembly Committee on State Affairs that she saw “babies thrown to the wall.” She told of family members killed, their graves “in the Danube” River in Europe. But Zaret also smiled, projected warmth, and talked about the role of love. She said she’s traveled the state to speak to Wisconsin children, who respond to love and fairness. At the end, one legislator remarked that she wished the rules allowed a standing ovation.

Holocaust survivor Eva Zaret spoke to the Assembly Committee on State Affairs on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. She held up several photos of family members, including this one of herself and her daughter. Photo by Rob Golub.

About 100 people packed into a small committee room Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, for the public hearing on the bill to require Holocaust education in Wisconsin.

In addition to Zaret, an archdiocese representative, teachers, students and others spoke in favor of the measure. Some who spoke came to Madison via a bus rented by the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

The committee could vote on the bill as soon as Thursday, Feb. 13, but it still must pass both houses of the Legislature.

Among about a dozen committee members present at the hearing, all of them representatives in the state Assembly, several spoke briefly. Though some granted that mandating is not always the best course, there nevertheless was clear support or at least empathy for the purpose of the bill among several of them. Some noted favorably that costs would be borne by the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, rather than state government.

But most of the hearing was not focused on cost, mandates or legislator support. Most of it was comprised of the testimony of impassioned supporters of the bill, with legislators listening intently.

Teacher Lynn Dziadulewicz, of Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, said she was “excited” about the bill when she read it. She’s attended subsidized national Holocaust education programs with only one or two others from Wisconsin present, and she feels that’s too few. The bill is needed, she said.

But groups representing school administrators in Wisconsin registered opposition to the bill on Wednesday; their representatives did not speak at the hearing. The Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference registered support.

The bill comes at a moment when, according to recent research, Americans are sorely uninformed on the Holocaust as antisemitism is growing. 

Rabbi Andrea Steinberger of Madison Hillel told the committee when students have put swastikas on Jewish students’ doors, something is revealed in subsequent discussions. “They are really doing it without much knowledge,” she said.

The bill requires that the state superintendent consult with an organization in the state that provides Holocaust education programs ­­– HERC is an indisputable leader on this in Wisconsin.

The bill would further require that the state superintendent of public instruction and local schools must “as part of the social studies curriculum, include instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in grades 5 to 8 and at least once in grades 9 to 12.”

State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) wrote the bill, at the request of HERC’s Holocaust Education Task Force Co-Chair Bev Greenberg. At the hearing, Darling recalled her visit to a concentration camp in Europe.

“That was one of the most striking experiences of my life,” she said. “We have to be reminded about our history because from this we learn about what our options are in the future.”

Darling has said support for the bill has been bipartisan and it has not been a tough sell with many of her peers in the Legislature. About 50 legislators from both houses have co-signed the bill.

At the hearing, Archdiocese of Milwaukee Catholic Schools Associate Superintendent Bruce Varick expressed “strong support” for the bill. He noted how his schools partner with HERC for direct teacher training. “The Holocaust or Shoah is a seminal event in the history of mankind,” he said.

About a dozen other states currently require Holocaust education. “We need now to lead the way so that other states will join us and follow our lead,” Greenberg told the legislators, after telling them this vote could have a greater impact on future generations than anything else they do.

Cost was addressed briefly by the representatives. Rep. Christine M. Sinicki (D-Cudhy), who has cosponsored the bill, noted that “everything is donated.” HERC pledges to provide any needed assistance for Wisconsin educators at no charge.

“Today’s children will likely never meet a Holocaust survivor,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), who is Jewish. “It is incumbent upon us to make sure that this history is known and it never is repeated.”

Nancy Kennedy Barnett, a HERC board member, told the committee that she was speaking to eighth graders about the Holocaust when one raised her hand and said her mom told her it didn’t happen, but it should have.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there on the internet, Kennedy Barnett said.

“We must teach the truth,” she said.