Nuremberg? Forget it. They don't even know Hitler

Posted: November 26, 2013

When Rhonda Fink-Whitman decided to test college students' knowledge of the Holocaust, lugging a video camera to four local campuses, she discovered some amazing facts:

Adolf Hitler was the leader of Amsterdam. Josef Mengele was an author. And JFK led the Allies during World War II, assisted by an American Army general named Winston Churchill.

Hardly any students had heard of the Holocaust, the Nazis' systematic murder of six million Jews. And when her questions turned to the Night of Broken Glass, the Nuremberg Trials, or the meaning of the phrase the Final Solution, forget it.

Her 15-minute film, " The Mandate Video," is a powerful piece of advocacy, viewed more than 260,000 times on YouTube and helping drive a campaign to require Pennsylvania schools to teach children about the Holocaust. The effort has attracted passionate supporters but seems stalled in the legislature.

"We are failing our children," said Fink-Whitman, a longtime Philadelphia radio personality now with Tango Traffic. "That really upsets me, as the daughter of a survivor, as the mother of college kids."

Five states - New Jersey, New York, California, Florida, and Illinois - mandate Holocaust instruction. Only two of two dozen students in the video answered the questions correctly, and they grew up in New Jersey and New York.

Few students could define genocide or say whether it still occurs in the world today, apparently having missed the news on Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur.

Fink-Whitman, 50, of Bensalem, is the author of 94 Maidens, a novel inspired by her mother's experience, and she frequently speaks and writes about the Holocaust. Teaching this history to young people has never been more important, she said, as survivors and liberators age into their 80s and 90s and their numbers dwindle.

Her movie sprang from two conversations, the first at a luncheon where State Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Phila.) and State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.) told her about their efforts involving a bill to require Holocaust teaching. She offered to help.

Then, during a summer vacation in Cape May, she happened to buy a bracelet inscribed with a quotation from Churchill - only to realize that her children's college-age friends had no idea he was Britain's wartime prime minister.

"After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I thought: 'What else don't these kids know?' I thought, 'Let me find out.' "

In September, she visited Temple, Drexel, and Pennsylvania State Universities and the University of Pennsylvania, stopping students at random to ask basic questions.

What was the Holocaust?

"The Holocaust, um, I'm on the spot now," answered a Temple student.

Where did the Holocaust happen?

"I have no idea," responded a Penn State student. "Europe?"

How long ago was it?

"Was that like 1800?" answered a Penn student. "I want to say 300 years ago."

The name Eisenhower was a mystery. Students didn't know why U.S. troops invaded Normandy, much less where it is.

"It's over near England and Germany and all that jazz," a Temple student offered.

Fink-Whitman said she didn't mean to embarrass the students, none of whom was named. All were bright, personable, and engaged - and chagrined by their historical illiteracy. Their answers reflect an absence of teaching, and the responsibility for that rests with educators and lawmakers, she said.

Chuck Feldman has watched the video dozens of times - and still finds himself glumly surprised.

Those young people aren't a cross-section of typical, history-poor Americans, said the president of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Northeast Philadelphia. They're students at some of the nation's best colleges, "kids who are obviously articulate, bright, and at the same time ignorant of basic world history."

His museum believes teaching the Holocaust is crucial, not just for the sake of the Holocaust itself, but as a way for students to examine basic moral issues. The Holocaust was no accident - it was planned and designed to destroy Jews and other "undesirables," including gays, Gypsies, and the disabled.

In a way, " The Mandate Video" echoes the "Jaywalking" sketches of comedian Jay Leno, who moves cameras to the streets to ask about basic history, eliciting embarrassing answers from people who think Ronald Reagan was president in 1940 and Louis Armstrong was an astronaut.

But the laughter obscures an important issue: The huge, well-documented American ignorance of U.S. and world history.

National tests show less than one in five students rates proficient in American history. What's more, the scores signal decay in the skills needed for good, active citizenship, according to a study by the Pioneer Institute in Boston. The report   described students' grasp of history as "alarmingly weak."

For two legislative sessions, Boyle has unsuccessfully pushed a bill to require teaching of the Holocaust, which he sees as an antidote to denial. Ultimately, "I absolutely believe we'll be successful."

For now, a weaker bill emerged from the House that changed Boyle's "shall" teach to "may" teach. The objections center on imposing another mandate on already burdened teachers and schools.

Education Committee Chairman Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), who sponsored the weaker bill, said he supported Holocaust education, wanted children to know history, and wouldn't rule out a future mandate.

But schools are struggling under new testing and evaluation requirements, and district superintendents tell him, "Please, no more mandates," Clymer said.

If his bill passes the Senate and after a year, few districts are teaching about the Holocaust, "I would not have a problem with it being mandated," he said.

Fink-Whitman said that students needed to be taught starting now - and that her video proved it. People always say to call your legislators, but she wanted to show instead of tell.

"It was really just a little love letter from me to them saying here's what's wrong with our education system in Pennsylvania," Fink-Whitman said. "We can do better."

See the video here


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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