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Holocaust scholar's message: 'Our schools have failed us'

Holocaust scholars strive to strengthen awareness

Holocaust scholar Liz Igra with the Central Valley Holocaust Educators Network speaks on efforts to educate on the facts of the Holocaust during Sunday's Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento.
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Holocaust scholar Liz Igra with the Central Valley Holocaust Educators Network speaks on efforts to educate on the facts of the Holocaust during Sunday's Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento.

So few Americans, especially millennials, know the story behind the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews and 5 million others, that California and other states must make Holocaust education mandatory.

That was the message from Dr. Eva Fogelman, a Holocaust scholar, who spoke with 30 children of Holocaust survivors Sunday at Sacramento's Mosaic Law Congregation.

"The American education system has failed this generation of people," she said in a talk aimed at helping them and others keep their stories alive.

"Most teachers learned what I did, one sentence in my high school textbook that said 6 million Jews were killed, there was no history," said Fogelman, an author and filmmaker who is herself the child of survivors.

Illinois, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, New Jersey and about a dozen other states have passed laws requiring mandatory Holocaust education, and California and the rest of the nation should follow suit, Fogelman said.

"One lecture is not enough, and there is so much fake news, children don't know if the films they are seeing are true," she said.

Sunday's Holocaust Remembrance comes at a critical time, said Fogelman and Liz Igra, a survivor who escaped the Jewish ghetto in Poland ahead of the Nazi extermination. Igra founded the Central Valley Holocaust Educators’ Network, which includes 70 children of survivors and has told the story of the Holocaust to thousands of area children over the past decade.

Last week, a new study by the Claims Conference revealed that 45 percent of Americans couldn’t name a single Nazi concentration camp, including Auschwitz. And nearly a third of Americans, including 41 percent of millennials, think far fewer than 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, believing the number to be 2 million or less, the study reported.

"People don't know why this happened, how an advanced civilization was able to perform mass murder and that the Holocaust was the blueprint for all future genocides," said Igra, 83. "There needs to be a viable curriculum, and it cannot be done by looking at the Internet, it needs good teachers, and the children and grandchildren of survivors can help bring it to life."

Igra, who tirelessly visits area schools, said a sixth-grade boy recently asked her what happened to the bodies in the gas chambers.

"I had to tell him that other Jews who might be next had to take the bodes out from the ovens, and sometimes remove their gold teeth, and the boy said that meant they could have taken out their parents or their brothers and sisters," Igra said.

Maria Winkler, co-chair of the children of survivors group in Sacramento, teaches school children about her father, Dr. Joseph Winkler, a Polish scientist who escaped the Nazis three times. Because he wouldn't tell the Nazis how to operate an oil refinery in Poland, he was locked in his office and marked for death the next morning, "but he got out a hidden door in the middle of the night, climbed over a wall, swam down a river and hid in a neighbor's haystack," said Maria Winkler, 72, who taught art at Sac State for 33 years.

She said her father later worked with the Russians during the war and fled to Siberia, but in 1942 "his whole family, including his wife and daughter Lily, were murdered." Maria was born after his second marriage.

Not all survivors are able to share their stories, said Hillel Damron, whose 91-year-old mother is still alive and refused to talk about her escape after she and 10,000 other Jews from their town in Hungary were sent to the camps. "She just turns away," said Damron, an Israeli American who learned the story from his father, an escapee from three concentration camps.

Even if the children of survivors don't have the full story, they can share memorabilia from their families, including photos, fake identification papers that saved their lives and letters, Fogelman said. "You want the children to identify with the people in the story, she said. "It gives them a sense of hope and helps them overcome whatever problems or struggles they are going through today by looking through what that person or family went through."

Barbara Brass spoke for several participants Sunday when she wondered about the current political climate, including the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States and the neo-Nazi movements in Europe. "There just seems to be too much of a parallel between what is happening in our country and the world," Brass said.

"We are not living in pre-Holocaust days," Fogelman said, "but when we are seeing dehumanization of people, we have to speak up."

Some children of survivors have to work through their anger and their own survivor guilt, Fogelman said.

"Why did we survive? We get very enraged, we get depressed, you deprive yourselves of joy," she said.

The best way to get past those feelings "is a search for meaning by channeling them into something life affirming and positive," Fogelman said.

That includes teaching the next generations and helping other refugees and oppressed populations, she said. "Others are trying to recapture lost Jewish culture, religion and language, the very things that Hitler was trying to eradicate."