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Why One Texas Lawmaker Set Out To Make Holocaust Education Mandatory In Schools

File Photo - José Menéndez. Last June, Menéndez carried legislation that would require Texas public schools to include the history of the Holocaust in curriculum.
Ryan E. Poppe | Texas Public Radio
File Photo - José Menéndez. Last June, Menéndez carried legislation that would require Texas public schools to include the history of the Holocaust in state curriculum.";s

For the first time, Texas public schools are pausing for Holocaust Remembrance Week. That's because last June, Texas legislators passed Senate Bill 1828, which requires the inclusion of the Holocaust in Texas public school curriculum. Texas State Senator José Menéndez carried the legislation, and he told TPR's David Martin Davies he learned of the need for the law while listening to Texas Public Radio.

The law gave Gov. Greg Abbott the ability to designate a week of remembrance of the Holocaust, and he chose the same week as International Holocaust Remembrance, Jan. 27 to Jan. 31.

|Related content: What Can The Holocaust Teach Us About Resistance?|

David Martin Davies: Why was this bill necessary?

José Menéndez: Well, the necessity is — which shocked me — was that 41% of Americans and 66% of millennials were completely unaware of Auschwitz. And that blew me away when I heard that 31% of Americans and 41% of millennials believe that only 2 million or fewer Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. And 52% of Americans wrongly believe that Hitler came to power through force through some sort of war or coup, not realizing that Auschwitz, the first bricks were laid long before all of this, in terms of [when] Hitler had come to power. It was a social movement. It was a movement of trying to scapegoat people, blame someone for all of the things that were going wrong in Germany. And Hitler took advantage of that and scapegoated and made members of the Jewish faith, made people who were gay and lesbian, made people who were disabled -- he picked on people who were different to scapegoat, to clean and cleanse what he thought should be Germany.

DMD: And this wasn't really being taught in Texas schools?

JM: So, it was hit and miss. Some schools would do it, some wouldn’t do it. There was, I think, one question on the TEKS. So what people tell me is that yeah, there was a mention of it in terms of World War II.

DMD: So the TEKS is like the curriculum.

JM: Yeah, the TEKS is what they say, “You must teach this” Texas educational knowledge and skills, and so, that's the test you take during the STARR, so they want you to know. I think there was one question on that and, you know now with us, we were the 12th state, I think others have joined since we passed this. But the reality is that I felt there needed to be a week where we have a specific remembrance of what happened. And I think it's important because it's one of the darkest chapters in our history of humankind that we have got to highlight this. We can't just have a specific question or let it be hidden because then there are the deniers out there, people that say, “Well, that never really happened.” And, and in my opinion, those are the same folks that will, if they can say this never happened, then they can choose to start picking on new scapegoats, new targets.

DMD: And how did you come to be the lawmaker, this Texas senator, that brought this to the floor?

JM: You know, I was blessed that I was commuting like I normally do during session between San Antonio and Austin. And I came to listen to — like I do most days, almost all the time — I had NPR on. And I heard four ladies. I heard a teacher and three children of survivors all right here on this show and heard them talk about the fact that there was a need for this. And when I called, when I called in, I asked, I said — I was surprised. I said, what do you mean this isn't already been done? And they said, “No, it's not.” And I later found out they had already tried to communicate with other members of the legislature to try to ask them to carry a bill. And I volunteered immediately. I wanted to do this because I just felt like it was a no brainer. I mean, to me, honestly, this made no sense that we wouldn't be doing it.

DMD: Unfortunately though, we are still seeing a rise in anti-Semitic attacks, uh, around the world. They rose, globally 13% in 2018 according to a report by Tel Aviv University. A quarter of those are in the United States. We saw one in New York City ,during Hanukkah, where there was a knife attack on a family, directly targeting a family celebrating an important Jewish religious event. This week of recognizing the Holocaust and trying to do something about anti-Semitism, this is sorely needed.

JM: We need to step up and we need to say, “This is what's happened in our past and we cannot ever let this happen again.”

David Martin Davies can be reached at DMDavies@TPR.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi.