Debora A. Steinerman: Eighty-one years after Kristallnacht - have we learned?

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This weekend marks the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass." On Nov. 9-10, 1938, Nazi leaders unleashed a series of pogroms against the Jewish population in Germany and its annexed territories. This event came to be called Kristallnacht because of the shattered glass that littered the streets after the vandalism and destruction of thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes.

Closer to home, our nation recently commemorated the first anniversary of Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. So, what have we learned? Whether 81 years or one year: hatred still exists. How does humanity overcome such intolerance? What can we do in our cherished Vermont?

Recently Gov. Phil Scott took a step by stopping the re-sale of two confiscated rifles bearing Nazi symbols. Vermonters need not benefit from these weapons that could have murdered my relatives and many others. Symbols of Nazi ideology must not be portrayed as having monetary or sentimental value. Swastikas are not simple designs to be scratched on desktops or drawn on walls or fields — they have a horrific history which threaten our freedom to this day.

Children of Vermont must not grow up without understanding the connection between all forms of bigotry and genocide, especially the worst example in modern history — the Holocaust of six million Jewish people and millions of others in Europe during World War II. In Vermont, thankfully, crime is low, and the quality of life is high. However, our state is 95 percent white (census.gov) and only 8 percent of Vermonters practice non-Christian religions (pewforum.org). Statistically it is probable that our children will grow up never meeting people who are different than themselves. Learning to respect differences and what bigotry can lead to if it goes unchecked is critical, especially in the social climate of today.

Nationally, 2017 saw a rise in hate crimes of 17 percent (fbi.gov). Vermont has not been immune to this trend. In November 2018 VTDigger.org carried the headline: "Reported hate crime incidents reach a 23-year high in Vermont." Just three months earlier there was a shocking headline in The Washington Post: "Holocaust Study: Two-thirds of millennials don't know what Auschwitz is." These stories are not unrelated.

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According to the Anti-Defamation League, teaching about the Holocaust provides an opportunity for teachers to elevate a number of important learning objectives: respect for differences; understanding where prejudice can lead; and the fragility of democracy.

Similarly, the Washington, D.C.-based United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states: "Holocaust [education] provides one of the most effective subjects for examining basic moral issues. A structured inquiry into this history yields critical lessons for an investigation into human behavior. It also addresses one of the central mandates of education in the United States, which is to examine what it means to be a responsible citizen."

On the federal level, the Never Again Education Act has been introduced in Congress. When it passes, states with mandated Holocaust education will be awarded grants to carry out educational programs about the Holocaust, helping ensure that funding for these lessons will be available.

The Vermont Holocaust Memorial would like to start an effort to make Vermont one of the next states with mandated Holocaust and genocide education. In the last five years, seven states have passed some version of such an education bill, now making a total of 12 states that mandate Holocaust and genocide education. Others, including Massachusetts, have bills that are in the process of approval.

Making this a reality in Vermont will require many voices. Please consider moving this goal forward by speaking to your state representatives and spreading the word regarding this important educational need. Our peaceful future starts with our children being on "TRACK" towards Tolerance, Respect, Acceptance, Compassion and Knowledge.

Debora A. Steinerman is president of the Vermont Holocaust Memorial. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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