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Teach Holocaust's horrors, lessons in our public schools

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A bipartisan bill with strong support in the General Assembly would require that North Carolina public school students learn about the systematic genocide of millions of Jews and others during World War II by Nazi Germany.

Sad to say, there is a need for it. According to a poll conducted by the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust, 66% of U.S. millennials don't know what Auschwitz was.

The bill requires the State Board of Education to include instruction of the Holocaust and genocide into the English and social studies standards used in middle schools and high schools. Knowledge of the Holocaust "is essential to provide students with the fundamental understanding of geography, history, and political systems necessary to make informed choices on issues that affect individuals, communities, states, and nations," the bill reads.

Part of the impetus for the bill is the fact that the remaining survivors of the Holocaust are now reaching the ends of their lives.

"The survivors are leaving us and along with their departures, we need to make sure that we live up to the mantra of 'Never again,'" Richard Schwartz, vice chairman of the N.C. Council on the Holocaust, told the state House Education Committee earlier this month.

The Holocaust was "the most organized and systematic factory-like destruction of people on the planet," Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro told the committee. Guttman is a former high school principal who has taught Holocaust studies since 1979.

The bill calls for the Department of Public Instruction to provide the curriculum for the courses and local school boards to provide professional development to ensure that the courses are effectively implemented. They could receive consultation from the N.C. Council on the Holocaust and the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

The Holocaust certainly should be taught and remembered. An essential curriculum would be gruesome, but it shouldn't be sanitized. It was the greatest horror of the modern world.

The history, political atmosphere and especially the persecution and falsehoods that led to it in the first place should be an integral part of the curriculum. The rise of Adolf Hitler and his accumulation of power, as well as the Nazi regime's use of propaganda, are important aspects of the story that must be included.

And, while America's role in ending Hitler's reign of terror was heroic, the curriculum also should contain lessons about Jewish refugees who sought safety here, only to be turned away. These include the 937 passengers of the German ocean liner St. Louis, almost all Jewish, who were denied entry to the Port of Miami in 1939. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where more than a quarter of its passengers died in the Holocaust. The fact is, not all of our history is glorious or honorable (including slavery, eugenics and lynching). As a nation, we need to own these mistakes and to learn from them so we don't repeat them.

It's disturbing that anti-Semitism has been resurgent in some dank swamps of the world - and equally disturbing that uninformed charges of anti-Semitism and similar Nazi references make their way into the public discourse.

Such atrocities shouldn't be trivialized or distorted. An honest and thorough understanding of that awful chapter in human history would help.

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