Claire Sarnowski was in fourth grade in 2014 when she heard Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener speak to students about the concentration camps he endured and the family and friends he lost to the Nazis.
Sarnowski was so moved that she and her mother visited Wiener at his house outside Portland. Improbably, the young Catholic girl and the elderly Jewish man went on to become friends.
She drew him a picture of trees and flowers that he missed as a teenager amid the barren horror of the camps. He showed her letters that he’d received from other Oregon students who were moved by his memories of World War II.
It was his dream, he told her, that all students would be required to study the Holocaust, lest it be forgotten.
Now that dream is taking shape in Oregon as a bill making the Holocaust part of the state’s public school curriculum is set to become law. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown planned to sign the measure Tuesday — joining 10 other states with similar requirements — thanks in no small part to a campaign waged by Sarnowski, now 14 and in high school.
Last August, she asked Rob Wagner, who is a Democratic state senator from the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego and a member of the school board there, to propose the idea to the district. Setting his sights higher, Wagner helped introduce the bill.
Both Sarnowski and Wiener testified in favor of it last September before a state legislative committee. Sarnowski wept as she described bullying, prejudice and stereotyping at school — and the lessons the Holocaust can offer seven decades later.
“Learning about genocide teaches students the ramifications that come with prejudice of any kind,” Sarnowski told lawmakers. “In talking with my classmates, it’s astonishing that some have such little knowledge about genocide that has happened and continues to happen.”
On Dec. 12, Sarnowski’s parents came to school to tell her that Wiener, 92, had been struck and killed by a car. As she mourned, Sarnowski redoubled her efforts to get the legislation passed.
Both chambers of Oregon’s Legislature passed the bill with unanimous votes. The law will take effect in the school year that starts in 2020, with details to be worked out by state education officials, schools and teachers. It call for teaching both about the Holocaust and genocide more broadly.
Sarnowski said in an interview that some people have questioned her activism.
“Even people who know me were skeptical at first, saying, ‘You’re not Jewish, and you’re a young girl,’” Sarnowski said. “But I could do this because it’s for the future generations of Oregon students, for people to hear these lessons of tolerance and respect.”
She said that two years ago, one of her seventh-grade teachers broke down crying over racist notes passed around among students. Images of swastikas have also circulated at school, she said.
Unsurprisingly, most students at Lakeridge High School, where Sarnowski is a freshman, don’t tend to brood on anti-Semitic incidents or genocides in faraway Cambodia and Rwanda.
Kids dress up with floral shirts for Tropical Tuesday on the first Tuesday of each month. They turn out for Pacers football, lacrosse and the coed cheerleading team. They debate whether smartphones and AirPods should be allowed in class.
Gov. Brown said Monday that she hoped students would come to understand their responsibilities as citizens to combat discrimination and other cruel acts.
“I am so proud of Claire for her advocacy and work to get Senate Bill 664 passed on behalf of her friend and Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener, and all of those who were impacted by this horrible chapter of history,” Brown said in a statement released by her office. “I hope Claire inspires other young people to get engaged in the legislative process.”
The bill comes as awareness of the Holocaust is fading.
A study commissioned last year by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an organization based in New York that negotiates for reparations for Holocaust victims, found that two-thirds of Americans 18 to 34 did not know what the Auschwitz concentration camp was. Four in 10 thought 2 million or fewer Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust; the actual number is about 6 million.
Holocaust survivors are dying off, leaving few people left with direct memories of that time. “We actually have no survivors who are speaking anymore,” said Judy Margles, executive director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.
Nationally, anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 such incidents, the third-highest total since the organization began tracking them in the 1970s. The number of Jews who were victims of assaults nearly tripled to 59, including the 11 shot and killed in October at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Oregon had seven reported anti-Semitic incidents, and neighboring Washington had 32. Some Holocaust deniers testified at a legislative committee hearing on Oregon’s bill.
“We see very progressive communities in both Oregon and Washington, but the reality is there’s a strong presence of white supremacist groups in the Northwest,” said Miri Cypers, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Northwest office in Seattle.
“The majority of anti-Semitic incidents we get contacted about in Oregon are in the school systems, a lot of them related to vandalism or bullying of Jewish students because of their identity,” she said.