Holocaust education now law in Delaware

As a first-generation American and the child of parents who escaped Nazi Germany, state Rep. Debra Heffernan’s perspective has impacted her understanding of how atrocities like the Holocaust happened.

“It really did change how I understood the scariness of how the Holocaust could happen to others in present time if we’re not careful,” she said. “And yet, other people … didn’t find out about it until they maybe learned about it in high school. They didn’t know and grow up understanding the horrors and how careful we had to be and how it’s everyone’s job to stand up for others.”

Debra Heffernan

But now, that will be part of curriculum in Delaware.

Rep. Heffernan, D-Bellefonte, sponsored House Bill 318, which requires school districts and charters to implement curriculum on the Holocaust and genocide for students in grades 6 through 12. The bill was signed into law last month and is set to begin for the 2021-22 school year. Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, was the lead Senate sponsor for the bill.

As Holocaust survivors are getting older — and with this year’s 75th anniversary of the freeing of Auschwitz, the largest German Nazi concentration camp — Rep. Heffernan said this is the perfect time to make the bill a law, to ensure there’s no lapse in remembering history.

The bill becoming law codifies what has been a yearslong effort from the Jewish and interfaith community in Delaware, Rep. Heffernan said. The bill passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate, with no dissenting votes.

Rep. Heffernan credits Ann Jaffe, a Holocaust survivor living in Delaware, for speaking to the House and Senate about her experiences.

“I have devoted the last 40 years of my life sharing my experience as an eyewitness to the true events of the Holocaust with thousands of Delaware students,” Ms. Jaffe said in a prepared statement. “My message to them through the years resonates with hope that we must learn to cultivate love and conquer hatred. Today, I feel reassured that the millions of individuals who were targeted for genocide will not be forgotten.”

Rep. Heffernan’s mother was from Berlin, Germany, and her father from a rural part of the country. As children, her parents separately took journeys from Nazi Germany to eventually end up in the United States. Her mother and her twin sister first went to Cuba and her father to Holland, before they were able to immigrate to the United States. The two met later.

While she grew up with an understanding of what had happened overseas, that wasn’t always the case for others. A friend of hers, for instance, hadn’t heard about the Holocaust until he was a sophomore in high school, learning about it in his history class, she said.

In Delaware, there are schools that are already teaching about the Holocaust, but the state lacked consistency across the board.

“The only way to make sure that something like this never happens again — and to understand all of the times this has happened ever since the Holocaust in areas around the world — is for kids to be aware and to understand,” Rep. Heffernan said.

Each school district will be able to develop its own curriculum for each grade level, so lessons will be appropriately tailored for the age of the students. The Halina Wind Preston Holocaust Education Committee will be able to “provide guidance, academic content assistance, resources and assistance with curricula development to deliver quality Holocaust and genocide education,” according to a news release.

“Today, we continue to grapple with challenges that have plagued society for ages: anti-Semitism, xenophobia, genocide, an ongoing refugee crisis and racial bias,” Steve Gonzer, chair of the Halina Wind Preston Holocaust Education Committee, said in a prepared statement. “Provisions in HB 318 will aid in the development of students’ respect for cultural diversity, prepare students to learn about other genocides in history and prepare students to confront the immorality of racism, prejudice and intolerance. We must teach future generations the true facts of history and allay the voices of those who strive to deny the truth.”

Starting the education in middle school is important because it teaches students not to stand idly by, Rep. Heffernan said.

“(This education) can help understand the Holocaust, and what happened to not only the Jews, but to many other marginalized groups that were targeted and other genocides that have happened in our lifetime,” she said.