If not for the advocacy of the Wisconsin Jewish community, there would likely be no Holocaust education legislation.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, signed the bill April 28, after years of discussion, planning and lobbying by an array of people.
Key players included the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, also known as HERC, and the Milwaukee area’s Jewish Community Relations Council, both programs of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Also, Hillel Madison, the Jewish Federation of Madison and the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, which is grounded in a partnership of the Milwaukee and Madison Jewish federations, played key roles.
About the Holocaust education legislation
The legislation requires that Wisconsin public schools, and many private or parochial schools, include instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in grades 5 to 8 and once in grades 9 to 12. It was signed into law on April 28.
The legislation requires that the state superintendent consult with an organization in the state that provides Holocaust education programs – that’s the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center.
The new law requires that Wisconsin schools teach about the Holocaust and genocide. About one-third of other states also require some education through legislation.
Much has been written about rising antisemitism in America. At the same time, Holocaust knowledge is sorely lacking. Forty-one percent of millennials believe that substantially fewer than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust. Forty-five percent of Americans can’t name a single concentration camp, according to a recent study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
The aforementioned Wisconsin Jewish organizations and area volunteers have been addressing these issues in different ways, culminating in the new legislation.
Director Michael Blumenfeld of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference attended a Milwaukee Jewish Federation legislative trip to Israel with more than a dozen Wisconsin legislators in 2019. Among them was Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, who by all accounts was touched by the group’s visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. The whole group was struck by the experience, Blumenfeld said.
“We went through Yad Vashem and we had incredible conversations,” he recalled.
The legislative success is not just a one-off. It’s the result of playing a long game.
“We cultivate relationships with folks,” said JCRC Board Chair Brian Schupper. “I think the credibility that we have helped foster with government stakeholders, it allowed for a certain receptivity. It just made it easier for the message to be heard.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council and the Wisconsin Jewish Conference advocated for the bill, as volunteer Beverly Greenberg whipped up a grassroots campaign on behalf of HERC. Jodi Majerus and Marilyn Pelz were co-chairs with Greenberg of HERC’s organized effort to get the bill passed – the Task Force on Holocaust Education.
“I’m embarrassed to even say that I’m a co–chair next to what she did,” Majerus said. “It was a full-time job for her.”
Majerus is not Jewish, which is also true for many volunteers who worked toward the passage of the legislation. She said she sees it not just as a Jewish issue but as a human issue.
“If it was not for Bev, this bill would not have passed,” Majerus said. “Bev did a Herculean job of making sure this bill went through.”
‘It takes a village’
“Nothing happens without champions,” Greenberg said. “I was blessed with fabulous champions.”
She named many who made a difference, beyond the Wisconsin Jewish Conference and the Jewish Community Relations Council. These others were included but not limited to Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), former Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), Rep. Jon Plumer (R-Lodi), volunteer Marilyn Pelz, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and Speaker Vos.
Holocaust survivor Eva Zaret traveled to testify for the bill at her own expense, as did others, Greenberg said.
“It takes a village,” Greenberg said.
“At its core, Holocaust education is about empowering students to take a stand against hate in all of its grotesque forms and act on behalf of themselves and others as upstanders,” said HERC Executive Director Samantha Abramson. “The Holocaust happened to a great extent because ordinary people did nothing; this Holocaust education bill is being signed today because ordinary people did everything.”
“Our state is going to be forever grateful to the dedicated volunteers, from HERC board members to Holocaust survivors to students, who launched this grassroots campaign to make this day a reality.”
HERC Board Chair Mark Miller said he hopes the legislation will have students learn not just history, but that genocide is possible “when you are a bystander and you don’t stand up for everybody.” HERC educational materials encourage this approach.
Greenberg said her philosophy is this: “Wisconsin’s whole motto is ‘Forward.’ How could we not have mandated Holocaust education?”
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Task Force on Holocaust Education
The task force is led by the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, in collaboration with the local Jewish Community Relations Council and the Wisconsin Jewish Conference. Members of the task force include Samantha Abramson (HERC executive director), Frank Busalacchi, Beverly Greenberg, Jodi Habush-Sinykin, Scott Lone, Jodi Majerus, Mark Miller (HERC board chair), Monica Olague-Marchan, Arleen Peltz, Marilyn Pelz, and Rick Rocamora.