A 2021 law in North Carolina aims to make sure we don’t forget one of the most terrible moments in history.
Beginning this school year, teaching of the Holocaust will be mandatory for middle and high school students in North Carolina public schools.
The Gizella Abramson Holocaust Education Act became law in November 2021, after being passed with strong bipartisan support and being signed into law by Governor Roy Cooper.
The Act is named for Gizella Abramson, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, who moved to North Carolina after World War II.
The Holocaust was one of the worst atrocities in human history; six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. In Abramson’s home country of Poland, 90% of Jews were killed. She was the only member of her family to survive.
After moving here, Abramson spent decades traveling from town to town in North Carolina, educating communities and residents about the horrors of the Holocaust. In 1981, she became a founding member of the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust, which is part of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI). She passed away in 2011 and today, her son Michael is the Chair of the Council.
“She started advocating for the Council back in 1976. They called her the Elie Wiesel of North Carolina, going to every hamlet, every city, every place in the state,” he said when reflecting on her life and work.
The implementation of the law comes at a critical time, with anti-Semitism on the rise and hate crimes against Jewish people hitting a 43-year high, according to the Anti-Defamation League. A nationwide study conducted in 2020 also found that Millennial and Gen-Z respondents in North Carolina were startlingly unaware of the details of the Holocaust. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they did not know six million Jews were murdered, 39% did not know what Auschwitz was, and 9% said Jews were responsible for the Holocaust. The same study also found that 75% said it was important to teach the Holocaust in schools to prevent something like that from occurring again.
Courses and lesson plans have been crafted by the Council and range from 30 minutes to several weeks long, but the implementation of these lessons will take place at the local level.
“It’s the individual school system that decides. What the law says is that every English class, every history, and every social studies class, starting in 6th grade, needs to talk about the Holocaust in that semester or in that school year,” Abramson said.
There will also be an elective course dedicated to teaching the Holocaust that will be rolled out in the 2024-2025 school year.
Shelly Bleiweiss, a resident of Wake Forest, and the son of Holocaust survivors, has given countless talks and presentations to both adults and school children about the genocide and persecution of the Jews, his parents’ story of survival, and the danger of antisemitism. He’s pleased that the new course will ensure younger generations continue to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust.
“We’re going to help students learn what happened in the 1930s in Nazi Germany to a group of people who were targeted for elimination just based on who they were,” Bleiweiss said. “The whole idea of the Holocaust was to eliminate every single Jewish man, woman, and child. That was the only goal.”
In addition to knowing what happened in the Holocaust, Bleiweiss hopes that students will be able to apply the lesson of tolerance and acceptance of different groups of people in their daily lives.
“It comes down to the golden rule: That which is hateful to you, don’t do unto others. If you don’t want to be treated that way, you shouldn’t treat the other person that way,” he said.
Renée Fink is a child survivor of the Holocaust. Her parents were killed at Auschwitz, but a Catholic family in the Netherlands took her in under a false identity and helped her stay alive. Fink, who now lives in Chapel Hill, hopes students receive a proper understanding of what happened. She said that one of the key things people need to remember about the Holocaust is how the persecution of the Jews was incremental and carefully planned.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. It happened so gradually, as bit by bit, freedoms were being taken away from the Jews…It was very carefully scheduled and orchestrated.”
To prepare teachers to implement the lessons and classes in schools, The Council, DPI, and educators who created the curriculum have teamed up to train educators on a voluntary basis. While teachers will not be tested on what they learned in these trainings, attendees are provided a True/False test before and after the training to see how the instruction impacts them.
While the teaching style may vary by school district, Michael Abramson says there are key things that he wants all students to take away from learning about the Holocaust.
“I want them to understand that they learned what happens to a community, to a society, when hate flourishes. That we end up treating a minority as ‘the other’, as subhuman. We segregate them, when enslave them, and we kill them. This is what happens when hate flourishes.”
He notes that 1930s Germany serves as a warning of what can happen to a nation when hate triumphs.
“It was the most intellectual and technically advanced country in the world. It was the last place you would expect this to happen.”