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The Teen Who Got Oregon to Mandate Teaching the Holocaust

June 2, 2019 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Thanks to a 14 year old student and a Holocaust survivor who became her mentor, Oregon schools have a new mandate to teach the Holocaust.

A talk by a Holocaust survivor that Claire Sarnowski attended when she was in fourth grade altered her life. Claire, who’s now a 14-year-old high school freshman in Lake Oswego, Oregon, has recently succeeded in lobbying lawmakers to mandate Holocaust education in Oregon schools – making sure that a new generation of students grows up knowing about the horrors and lessons of the Holocaust. Even though she’s not Jewish, Claire has made promoting Holocaust education her mission, dedicating countless hours to this cause.

Claire was nine when her mother Carol let her miss a day of school so she could attend a talk given by Alter Wiener, a local Holocaust survivor. “My sister is a teacher in a school in Salem, Oregon,” Carol explained in an exclusive interview; her school was hosting Alter and she invited Carol to attend and hear him speak.

Claire Sarnowski getting legislation passed,
holding a photo of Alter Wiener

As a child, Carol's father insisted that she and her sister learn about the Holocaust and read The Diary of Anne Frank. He took the family to visit Dachau, a trip Carol never forgot. Carol had already encouraged Claire to read age-appropriate books about the Holocaust; meeting a survivor seemed like the logical next step in Claire’s education.

Alter’s Holocaust experiences were deeply harrowing. Born in Poland, he endured five Nazi concentration camps before he was eventually liberated in May 1945. Alter returned to Poland only to find that nearly his entire extended large family – over 120 people – had been murdered. He married, built a family, and moved to the United States in 1960.

Alter moved to Oregon in 2000, and began speaking about his experiences publicly. He also wrote a memoir, 64735 From a Name to a Number: A Survivor’s Autobiography. He gave talks to thousands of groups, including local schools.

After the talk, Claire’s aunt drove Alter home. Claire asked if she could accompany them and the three had an impromptu and deeply meaningful visit.

Alter said he’d never met a child who was as interested in his Holocaust story as Claire. “It was so moving and interesting to me to hear his personal account,” Claire recently recalled, “and it really impacted me. He was such a generous and kind man. I remember thinking, ‘How could someone exhibit so much kindness after going through the things that he has been through?'”

Alter Wiener holds up a photo of himself taken in July 1945, two months after he was liberated from a Nazi death camp,

The Sarnowski family kept in close touch with Alter. He confided in the Sarnowskis his lifelong dream to see Oregon pass a mandatory curriculum standard to make sure the Holocaust was taught in Oregon’s public schools. Claire decided to try and make his dream come true. She contacted her State Senator, Rob Wagner, asking if he could help.

Recently elected to Oregon’s State Senate, Rep. Wagner was glad to hear from his young constituent. He arranged a meeting with Claire and Alter Wiener who explained why they felt Oregon should mandate teaching about the Holocaust in schools. The idea struck a chord with Rep. Wagner. “I remember looking at my kids, after many incidents of racism and anti-Semitism in Lake Oswego, and thinking, ‘We need to prioritize a culture change,’” he explained to reporters. Rep. Wagner agreed to co-sponsor SB 664, a bill to make Holocaust Education mandatory in Oregon.

In September 2018, Rep. Wagner invited Alter and Claire to testify before the Oregon State Senate at a hearing for the bill. They gave emotional testimony. Alter said that in years of speaking to school groups, he has received 88,000 letters from students and adults who heard him speak. He brought 200 letters to the hearings and highlighted the type of impact learning about the Holocaust had on the students.

“A seventh grader...who contemplated suicide because of problems she had to face at home wrote to me that she had changed her mind after my presentation because she realized that after all her difficulties she was still blessed,” Alter explained. “A tenth grader decided not to drop out of high school realizing that she was indeed privileged, after hearing how I was unable to go to school.”

A key lesson he imparted was the crucial importance of kindness and thinking of others. While working as slave labor in a factory, Alter explained, he was kept alive by the kindness of a German woman working in the factory who left sandwiches hidden for him to eat each day for a month.

(Alter’s testimony to the Oregon Senate can be viewed here)

Rep. Wagner told his fellow State Senators, “Learning about the Holocaust is not just a chapter in recent history, but a...lesson how to be more tolerant, more loving and that hatred is, eventually, self-destructive”

Alter Wiener and Sen. Rob Wagner

Claire, Alter and Rep. Wagner continued to work on getting support for the bill. Claire spent many hours on the effort, despite the fact that she was also heavily involved in yet another cause: her mother Carol has MS and Claire was fundraising to help fund MS research. Growing up with a mother with MS might have helped make Claire more open to hearing from others with difficult challenges, Carol explains, and made her even more interested in hearing about Holocaust survivors and helping to spread survivors’ stories.

On Thursday, May 23, 2019, SB 664 passed the Oregon State Senate and House. It’s expected to be signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown and take effect for the 2020-2021 school year. Ten other states have similar laws mandating that schools teach about the Holocaust, including Illinois, California, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Tragically, Alter Wiener did not live to see the bill pass. He died after being struck by a car while he was taking a walk near his home on December 11, 2018. He was 92.

Alter’s legacy of teaching about the Holocaust lives on in his adopted state of Oregon. Today, more than ever, it’s crucial to make sure our children learn about the Holocaust. Ignorance about the Holocaust is a growing phenomenon. A 2018 poll revealed that two thirds of American millennials (66%) don’t know what the Auschwitz concentration camp was. A 2019 poll showed that a third of Europeans know “just a little or nothing at all” about the Holocaust.

Thanks to a high school freshman, and the Holocaust survivor who became her mentor, knowledge about the Holocaust will increase in Oregon.


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