For Holocaust survivors like Charles Rotmil, the genocide committed against Jews by Nazi Germany in World War II should not be an optional subject in public education.

“We need to know what happened during this period so that it will never happen again,” Rotmil, 88, of Portland, told members of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee Monday.

As a child, Rotmil was rescued and hidden by monks in Belgium at age 7. He and his brother survived the war, but his mother and sister died in a train crash and his father was arrested by the Nazis and executed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Rotmil has told his stories of survival to thousands of Maine students over the years. He said mandating education around genocide, which persists today in countries around the world, is key to preventing it.

The committee is considering a trio of bills that would require all Maine public schools to include lessons on genocide and Black history as part of their curriculum. Similar bills were approved by lawmakers in 2020 but were left in limbo when the Legislature adjourned ahead of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine.

Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the sponsor of one of the bills, said he’s worked closely with teachers and students at Ellsworth High School, which offers its students a full-year course on genocide, in crafting the legislation.

Luchini said the FBI issued a report showing the U.S. endured its highest level of hate crimes in a decade last year, and set the record for the highest level of fatal hate-crime attacks.

“This underscores the importance of combating racism, bigotry and hate,” Luchini said. “It’s a truly difficult task that we face and we must counter it from different angles. The rationale for this bill is education will play a critical role in stemming these things. Children aren’t born with hate or bigotry, it’s something that is developed over time, and by teaching this early to students they can learn the dangers of hate and intolerance and the perils of inaction.”

About a dozen people, including students and teachers, spoke in favor of Luchini’s bill, L.D. 187, while only one person offered opposition.

Representatives from the Maine School Management Association and the Maine Curriculum Leaders Association were neutral. They noted that the Holocaust and Black history are already being taught in most schools in the state. Both organizations said they typically oppose bills that seek to mandate curriculum content.

Heidi Omlor, the teacher of the course at Ellsworth High School, said in the decades after the Holocaust claimed six million Jewish lives, other genocides, including in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan and Syria, have claimed at least another six million lives.

“Everyday there are headlines that remind us of the forces that are behind these acts of genocide and the question remains of why do these acts keep happening?” Omlor asked. “My belief is that the answer is education and the fact that it is often severely lacking. As educators, we promote the idea that education is the key to many things; jobs, higher socioeconomic status, healthier lifestyles, and I would add genocide prevention.”

Students from Ellsworth also pointed to recent studies and polls that show American are increasingly less knowledgeable about the Holocaust and genocide. Younger Americans, members of Generation Z and millennials, are the least knowledgeable, with many not knowing anything about the Holocaust and some even blaming it on Jews.

“Forty percent cannot name a single concentration camp out of the 40,000 that existed,” said Ellsworth High School student Paige Sawyer. She said 63 percent believed less than six million lives were claimed by the Holocaust.

“I was one of these people,” Sawyer said. “After learning about these genocides my life has changed. I realize that education is an important part of preventing future genocides.”

Falmouth High School student Leila Tata Pambou told lawmakers that requiring education on Black history in the U.S. is also critical, given the country’s long history of systemic racism. In a state that is mostly white, Black history is often treated only as an “addendum” in public school, said Pambou, a member of her school’s Black Student Union.

“Much of the current U.S. history curriculum does not explore African-American heritage and neglects the many contributions of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color),” Pambou said. “In addition, the extreme violence experienced by African-Americans and Black people is often minimized.”

Another bill requiring genocide education, sponsored by Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, is also before the committee. Fecteau, a high school German teacher, also noted studies showing younger generations of Americans had little knowledge of genocide, specifically the Holocaust.

“Figures have ranged widely given the lack of tracking and technology, but I believe we can all agree the 20th century was the bloodiest time in human history,” Fecteau said. “We should require that this stark reminder be taught to every single one of our Maine children.” He called genocide, “the most putrid and horrendous thing that humans do to their own kind.”

The bills will be the subject of a work session before the committee in the days ahead before moving to the full Legislature for consideration.

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