Establishing a standard for Holocaust education
It was a hopeful evening on Wednesday, Sept. 27 as many gathered for the annual Voices for Truth and Humanity Remembrance Awards Ceremony. The organization has been a key player in efforts to standardize and protect education on the Holocaust — and other genocides — in the State of New York.
New York, like many states, has a mandate in place requiring the teaching of the Holocaust in schools. However, there is no formal established curriculum currently in place. This means that each school district across the state is at liberty to determine what an adequate Holocaust education looks like, rendering the mandate functionally useless.
While hope would be that New York offers a plethora of knowledge on the topic, Roger Tilles, NYS Education Deptartment Regent for the Tenth Judicial District, explained that his in-depth analysis into the curriculum revealed otherwise. “All it said in [state] law was that [schools need to] teach Holocaust education. What we found out was that some districts were teaching five minutes, and others were teaching five months. The disparity was so great,” he acknowledged. “You can tell, with what’s going on in our schools nowadays, the incidences of intolerance and bigotry have gone way up. And I think that the lack of Holocaust education is one of the factors.”
Tilles noted that Governor Kathy Hochul recently agreed to devote $4 million to antisemitism studies in different areas of the state. The goal of this endeavor is, according to Tilles, to take the best practices of Holocaust education and make them available for every school district across the state. “Until we do that, until we have districts that really do Holocaust education — not just a periphery job of it — we’re not going to get to where we need to be.”
Rabbi Charles Klein, Rabbi-Emeritus of the Merrick Jewish Centre, also spoke at the ceremony. He called special attention to the “truth” aspect of the host organization’s name. “The Hebrew word for truth, emet (phonetic spelling) is composed of three Hebrew letters. And those letters happen to be the beginning, middle and end letters of the Hebrew alphabet. And that fact signals to us that truth must be spoken to the widest possible spectrum of people. First, middle, and last. People all together must create the chorus of truth.”
“Tonight, all of us together come here to speak the truth,” he continued. “The truth that you shall not hate your neighbor in your heart, the truth that you cannot turn away in the face of something that is wrong… We stand together tonight because we believe in truth. We stand together because we believe we must fight the big lies, which must be contended with. We have come here tonight to join our voices against hatred.”
Honored at the Ceremony were five recipients of the Voices for Truth and Humanity 2023 scholarship. This scholarship is awarded for pertinent Holocaust-related essays written by students from both Nassau and Suffolk. Recipients included Aidan Caplan from Commack High School, Brayden Dilmanian from Great Neck High School, Alexis Sarris from Half Hollow Hills East High School, Nickolas Mascary from Sanford H. Calhoun High School, and Evan Weinstein from East Meadow High School.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik was the recipient of the Mark S. Golub Man of the Year Award. Golub, a trailblazing rabbi and founding president of the Jewish Broadcasting Service (JBS) passed away on January 31 of this year. In his memory, an award was presented to Rabbi Potasnik, the Executive Vice President of The New York Board of Rabbis. Potasnik had a long friendship with Golub, and was even interviewed by him for a JBS broadcast.
“Friday night, we begin our festival of Sukkot,” Potasnik said. “And during the festival, we have an unusual custom. We walk down the synagogue carrying a lulav — a palm branch. Someone once asked why we do this with a lulav, but not the shofar? The answer is that the shofar, you can hide. You can put it in your pocket. The lulav, you can’t hide. You want to be a Jew? You cannot hide. Be like that lulav; stand tall, walk proudly.”
Also at the podium was Martin Bloch, one of the youngest remaining Holocaust Survivors. Bloch was born in Ivje, Poland in 1935. In 1941, he escaped the Ivje ghetto with his mother and brother, and joined the Bielski Artrad Jewish Partisan group. After surviving the Holocaust, he lived in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp until 1951, when his family left to come the United States.
That he would live was highly unlikely for the time. “Many children did not survive,” Bloch explained, “Because they could not work. If you were too young, or too old, they would send you to the gas chambers, because you could not work in the camps.” Among the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, 1.5 million were children. “I’m here because my Mom, in early December of ‘41, decided to dig a hole underneath the barbed wires, and take me and my older brother under them.” Bloch, his mother, and brother, were housed by a Christian family who did not believe in the atrocities occurring around them.
It is imperative, as year after year we lose the living memory of this travesty, to hold on to the truth, to the stories and voices of those who experienced the Holocaust, either as victims, or warriors, or civilians who fought in their own ways to help the Jewish people, as well as the 5 million others who were targeted over the course of the 1930s and 40s.
Bloch ended his speech by acknowledging the only truth he has known and lived by his entire life. “In order for evil to triumph, the good people must do nothing.”