This piece is adapted from Moment’s flagship newsletter, Moment Minute. Sign up here.
Shortly before Elie Wiesel, one of Moment’s two cofounders, died in 2016, I had an appointment to visit him in New York. I had watched age and illness creep up on him, and was looking forward to spending time together. I was at the Jersey Shore visiting my father, and was about to walk to the station to catch the train into the city. My dad, sitting in his wheelchair at the dinette table, asked, “Where are you going?” I explained that I was on my way to see Elie Wiesel.
No sooner had I said this name than whoops of excitement came from the kitchen, where my father’s caregiver, from Haiti, was braiding the hair of her twin nieces, Rashawn and Nellwyn. “You know Elie Wiesel?” asked Rashawn, wide-eyed. “We just learned about him in school!” “We read Night,” Nellwyn chimed in, adding, “We studied the Holocaust,” in case I didn’t understand the connection. The girls were about 12 and attended public middle school in a neighboring town. They were beside themselves. “How do you know him?” they asked.
My dad smiled, and I explained. And then I thought of how Elie often wrote back to people who wrote to him, and how significant it was that Rashawn and Nellwyn, the daughters of Haitian immigrants, knew who he was and had studied the Holocaust. “Why don’t you write him a note and I’ll give it to him?” I suggested. More whoops! Rashawn scribbled a note and I stuck it in my bag as I dashed out to make the train.
Later, as my train emerged from the tunnel under the Hudson River, an email appeared on my phone. My meeting with Elie had been canceled because he was not well. I carried the twins’ note around with me for months, but I never saw Elie again. Even after he died, I kept it in my purse for at least a year, unable to part with it, an unfinished communication between a survivor and two young girls that would have meant something to all three of them.
Fast forward to May 2021, a few months after my father died. I was in New Jersey and went for a stroll on the Asbury Park boardwalk with a man who had been part of the push to bring Holocaust education to New Jersey public schools. As we walked, he recounted his mother’s escape from Germany in the 1930s and how studying the Holocaust had become a staple in the state’s classrooms. Talking to him made me realize how it had come to pass that two first-generation American pre-teens idolized Elie Wiesel—and how little many people, myself included, really know about the movement to educate American public school children about the Holocaust.
I quickly determined that Moment needed to dive into Holocaust education in the nation’s public schools and asked senior editor Dan Freedman to take on this gargantuan task. Unlike most stories I have read about Holocaust education, Dan’s story is not framed in terms that suggest failure: It is not frontloaded with statistics detailing Americans’ ignorance about Auschwitz or the number of Jews killed. Nor does it lead with the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world, who abuse and misuse Holocaust-related historical analogies. We do give these facts space, not to sensationalize or alarm, but, as is our practice, to deepen understanding and create the conditions for informed vigilance. Our story (which you can read here) encompasses far more, from Holocaust education’s wide though still imperfect reach, to the dangers posed to it by political polarization, and to the profound themes it introduces to students who often remember it forever. Which brings me full circle to Rashawn and Nellwyn today: These two smart young women are unlikely to ever forget Elie’s harrowing story and the evil that was Nazi Germany. To me, they are proof that Holocaust education works.
2 thoughts on “From the Newsletter | The State of Holocaust Education in America”
Great job Nadine XO
Very good essay.