MILWAUKEE – Gov. Tony Evers signed a Holocaust education bill into law on April 28 at the Helfaer Community Service Building, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee.
The Helfaer building is the site of Milwaukee Jewish Federation offices, including the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center and Jewish Museum Milwaukee. The governor signed the bill beside items from a museum Holocaust exhibit, after a concerted, years-long and local Jewish community effort to bring the legislation to fruition (see story, page 13).
Antisemitism is on the rise and Holocaust knowledge is insufficient in America, according to national monitoring organizations. The legislation requires Holocaust education in Wisconsin middle and high schools.
“We know this is not the end all, be all,” said Evers, a Democrat, before he signed. “It is not a solution to eliminating hate, eliminating antisemitism in the hearts and minds of folks across the state,” he said, but added that it’s “a good start.”
He said the legislation “continues our march forward in pursuit of a more inclusive, just and equitable world.”
Holocaust survivor Eva Zaret had testified in person before state legislators and appeared in a video in support of the bill.
She said her strong desire to impart the lessons of the Holocaust is “always in the back of my mind.” She’s spoken to many groups in association with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
At the podium, she said, “If I die now, I die with a smile … because this is what happened.
“Thank you so much,” she added.
Federation Board Chair Moshe Katz spoke before Evers signed, quoting Anne Frank, the diarist who perished in the Holocaust: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
The state Assembly approved the Holocaust education bill on April 13, after the state Senate did so in March.
Jewish community representatives offered “tremendous gratitude to Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Reps. Jon Plumer (R-Lodi) and Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) for authoring this historic legislation. We also thank Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) for his strong leadership.” The joint statement was from Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center and the Wisconsin Jewish Conference.
The bill endured a two-year legislative journey, with delays across different legislative sessions because of the pandemic. This forced multiple votes in the state Legislature. All votes were unanimous in favor of the bill.
On the floor of the Assembly, just before the last of the Legislature votes, Rep. Jon Plumer of Lodi told a story of the only time he ever saw his father cry – when he talked about what he saw during World War II. Plumer, a Republican, thanked other representatives for their support for the bill.
Rep. Lisa Subeck told a story of visiting with family a wall with names on it at a concentration camp. “It took me a little bit of time as my dad was staring at the wall to realize that he was looking for family names,” said Subeck, a Madison Democrat who is Jewish, on the floor of the Assembly. She said telling that story gets her emotional every time.
“The lessons of the Holocaust are vitally important because when we know our history, we are less likely to repeat it,” she said. Rep. Don Vruwink, a Milton Democrat and social studies teacher, said he wanted education to include why the Holocaust happened.
The legislation mandates Holocaust education in Wisconsin middle schools and high schools. According to a recent study of all 50 U.S. states by the Claims Conference, 49% of American Millennials and Gen Z-ers cannot name a single camp or ghetto from the Holocaust; there were over 40,000.
Subeck noted on the floor of the Assembly that young Americans are uninformed on the Holocaust. “That scares me. That terrifies me because it tells me it could happen again,” she said.
The legislation requires that the state superintendent consult with an organization in the state that provides Holocaust education programs – the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is an indisputable leader on this in Wisconsin. Commonly called “HERC,” the program has been working to ready itself to assist the state’s educators, according to its executive director, Samantha Abramson.
HERC and its supporters have worked for years to research the Holocaust education laws of other states and promote the bill through the Wisconsin political process (See story, page 13).
On April 28, when Evers signed the bill, he did so beside items from the exhibit, “To Paint is to Live: The Artwork of Erich Lichtblau-Leskly,” whose art relates to the daily life he saw in the Nazi Theresienstadt camp.
“This bill will affect generations of kids in our state and bring increased awareness, and recognition in our schools to the tragedies of the Holocaust, the pervasiveness of antisemitism to this day, and hopefully cultivate a generation that is more compassionate,” Evers said.