Commission would spread Shoah lessons

BY KIT WAGAR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Amid all the legislation this year that seems intended to return Missouri to the 1950s, one bill seeks to take us back two decades further and half a world away.

That bill would create a state commission charged with spreading awareness and creating educational programs about the Holocaust that engulfed Europe from 1933 to 1945.

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The bill’s sponsor, Senate leader Michael Gibbons of Kirkwood, said he hoped the commission would foster a celebration of people’s differences. The world, he said, needs never to forget that even a modern society can degenerate into the madness that took the lives of six million Jews and millions of gays, gypsies and other ethnic minorities.

“I hope to put in place a structure to make sure there is an awareness of the Holocaust, of what happened and how it can happen in a civilized society,” Gibbons said. “Remember, Germany in the 1930s was by no means a Third World country.”

The bill would create the Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission, a 12-member panel under the auspices of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The commission would sponsor programs intended to encourage understanding of the Holocaust, discourage bigotry and “deter indifference to crimes against humanity and human suffering wherever they occur.”

Jean Cavender, director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, said such a commission is particularly relevant now, when societies throughout the world seem bent on dividing into narrow group identities.

The need to address the roots of hate crimes and genocide is not a Jewish issue, but a human one, Cavender said. It is a message likely to resonate with African immigrants and with St. Louis’ sizeable Bosnian population because of the ethnic cleaning campaigns in Rwanda and the Balkans, she said.

“The lessons of the Holocaust are fundamental,” Cavender said. “We need to start teaching kids at an early age that differences are not wrong. History teaches us the importance of understanding and appreciating our differences and emphasizing our common humanity.”

Karen Aroesty, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, has been a leader in the effort to create a Holocaust Commission. She said nine states already have a commission dedicated to the Holocaust and nine others have some form of task force or requirement to teach about it.

The Missouri commission, Aroesty said, could be the impetus for high school and middle school courses, adult education and training, essay contests, an annual commemoration as well as programs on human rights and genocide.

The Anti-Defamation League already offers a Holocaust class for St. Louis police recruits that shows how an agency dedicated to protecting people became a tool to persecute them.

“We show how Hitler used the police at the end of Weimar Republic to begin the process of becoming a dominating authority,” Aroesty said. “Police can learn from that now. The Holocaust is the best-documented hate crime in history and it shows how broadly hate affected society. It was not aimed just at Jews, but at homosexuals, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Police who have taken the course have come away with a deeper understanding of their role in society, Aroesty said. In evaluations of the course, police recruits said it made them appreciate the importance of maintaining personal integrity and upholding constitutional protections.

Cavender said a state Holocaust commission should be able to expand education programs already offered by the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park, Kan.

The two organizations offer seminars on ways to include lessons on inclusiveness while teaching history and literature, Cavender said. Nearly 300 Missouri teachers have already attended such courses, where they are introduced to books, movies and lesson plans they can use to teach about the Holocaust.

The bill to create the Holocaust Commission has sailed through initial hearings with no opposition. It is likely to come to a vote in the Senate within a week. Major factors in the bill’s favor, Aroesty said, are “it’s about education, it’s bi-partisan and it won’t cost a lot.”

Having the top official in the Senate as the bill’s sponsor doesn’t hurt, either. Gibbons, a Republican, said he was glad to carry the bill.

“If you’ve ever visited the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, you know it’s a compelling place. It’s not fun, but it’s compelling,” Gibbons said. “This legislation is a way for us to take those lessons out on a broader, statewide basis. In Missouri and in the St. Louis area, there is a major commitment to making sure that people don’t forget.”

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Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, whose office regulates securities sold within Missouri, recently ordered a St. Louis company to pay a $10,000 fine and repay 12 investors $100,000.

The order says that William Alexander and his company, Emerging Technologies Development Co., raised $100,000 by claiming they could produce a water-powered car.

In July 2004, the company announced that it would create several thousand jobs in St. Louis. Its water-powered car, the company said, would likely make gasoline obsolete within 100 days.

“However,” Carnahan’s office said with remarkable understatement, “the company admits that to date, no water-powered car has been produced, no jobs have been created and no funds remain in Emerging Technologies Development Co.”

My question: How is the state supposed to protect investors with business savvy like that?

Kit Wagar is the statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He can be reached at 816-234-4440 or by sending e-mail to [email protected]