MADISON – Advocates testified last month in support of a bill to provide state funding for the Holocaust education center.
The state Legislature is considering the bill to provide funding to Wisconsin’s Holocaust education center, after 2021 legislation requiring Holocaust and genocide education in schools led to increased demand for educator training and resources. Advocates representing the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center testified at a pair of committee hearings in Madison on Jan. 17, to support the funding. The proposed amount, as of Chronicle press time, was $100,000 annually over two years.
HERC, as the center is sometimes called, is a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
The authors of the bill are Representatives Jon Plumer (R-Lodi) and John Spiros (R-Marshfield), and Senators Daniel Knodl (R-Germantown) and Cory Tomczyk (R-Mosinee). Assembly representatives Francesca Hong, of Madison, and Deb Andraca, of Whitefish Bay, both Democrats, expressed support for HERC and the bill, and are among the co-sponsors. Representative Lisa Subeck, who together with Plumer and then-Senator Alberta Darling authored the 2021 Holocaust education mandate, is also a cosponsor of this latest bill.
Plumer identified HERC as “the primary support vehicle for educators in Wisconsin in carrying out the requirements.” Advocating for the bill to their committees, representatives and others raised the recent, marked growth in antisemitism. They also raised the need to support quality Holocaust education after the legislature unanimously passed a bill in 2021 that mandated education on the Holocaust and other genocides in all middle and high schools.
Samantha Abramson, executive director of HERC, recalled that at that time, HERC promised to provide resources and lesson plans to Wisconsin schools, at no cost to taxpayers. It has “delivered ten-fold on this promise,” she said. Abramson described HERC’s growing lesson plan website, which she said is unique in the country. She talked of workshops held for educators, the tripling of the reach of the HERC speaker’s bureau and “phones ringing off the hook” with requests for HERC services.
“We grew our staff from four to seven full-time staff, including education positions,” she said. “We did this with funding from individuals and private foundations for the most part.”
HERC’s projected overall operating budget is projected to grow from $450,000 to more than $800,000 in the next fiscal year, because of its support for the state’s mandated education efforts, she said.
Representatives asked if genocides other than the Holocaust are covered by HERC’s work and Abramson said HERC partners with organizations that have expertise in other genocides.
Lindsay McBride, a middle school teacher in Ozaukee County, expressed “strong support” for the bill when she testified.
“Throughout the 10 years that I’ve connected with speakers, HERC has driven them to Ozaukee County, rearranged our speaking dates when necessary, introduced the speakers and facilitated question and answer sessions,” McBride said.
She quoted from one student’s note to Holocaust survivor Howard Melton (of blessed memory), after Melton spoke to her students: “Before I met you, I had so much hate for the people who’ve hurt me in the past, and I had such rage and negative energy. Since I met you sir, it started slowly going away. And I’ve had 10 times the amount of hope that I had before. So honestly, I can never thank you enough.”
Nancy Kennedy Barnett talked about her HERC volunteerism, serving on the board and speaking to students for HERC. She described the time a student raised their hand and said they had heard the Holocaust never happened. The student was clearly troubled by what they had heard, after visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, on a HERC-led trip, Barnett said.
Eva Zaret, a Holocaust survivor and member of the HERC speakers bureau spoke. She talked about how she was sent to a Budapest ghetto in her youth, saw unspeakable things, and now is grateful to be in America and loves this country. Legislators were clearly moved.
“I speak to thousands of children. This is a picture,” she said, holding up an image of herself with children. “I’m going Friday: 600 children in Menomonee Falls.”
She brought with her to the hearings her message of love and kindness, with a glowing, genuine smile.
“The kids sometimes ask me, after I speak … how can you be so strong and how can you not hate after what you’ve been through and what you saw. How can you love in you and why?” she said. She talks about it with the children, often during question-and-answer sessions.
Students also stand in line to meet her after her talk, take pictures with her, and give her hugs.
Zaret told the legislators: “It is only through Holocaust education that we can inspire the students of today to live peaceful lives and to love your fellow human being.”
She showed a picture of herself, from when she arrived with “a baby in my arms.” She said to the legislators: “I can never thank you enough, to accept me and me having this wonderful life.”