Rhonda Fink-Whitman wrote a novel inspired by the story of her mother, a Holocaust survivor, but it’s her 14-minute YouTube video showing Pennsylvania students’ lack of knowledge of the Shoah that has people talking.
To advocate for mandatory Holocaust and genocide education in Pennsylvania public schools, Fink-Whitman, the author of 94 Maidens, visited four college campuses — Temple University, Drexel University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania — and asked students questions as basic as:
Where did the Holocaust happen?
Which country did Adolf Hitler lead?
What are the prison camps known as?
And in almost all the examples included in the YouTube video , which has been viewed more than 230,000 times, the students either provide wrong answers or admit they don’t know. In short, Jay Leno would have a field day with this video.
But Fink-Whitman, a Bucks County resident who said she has received emails from all over the world since the video went viral, didn’t produce it to embarrass people, she said. She wants Pennsylvania to join five other states — California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and New York — that require their schools to teach the Holocaust. “The video makes our case that this has fallen through the cracks for our kids here in Pennsylvania,” said Fink-Whitman, 50. “We have failed them, and the only people who can fix this are our legislators.”
Fink-Whitman is supporting state legislators with strong ties to the Jewish community who are pushing for changing Pennsylvania’s laws on this matter.
State Rep. Brendan Boyle, who represents part of Northeast Philadelphia and visited Israel earlier this year, proposed an amendment to a bill in June to require Holocaust and genocide education as part of the public schools’ curriculum for grades six through 12. That measure was defeated in the House.
State Sen. Anthony Williams, who along with Boyle spoke at a Yom Hashoah ceremony here in April, has introduced similar legislation this year.
Opposition to Williams’ and Boyle’s legislation is based largely on wariness to any additional mandates in education, not the specific focus on the Holocaust and genocide, the legislators said.
State. Rep. Paul Clymer proposed alternative legislation, which has passed the House, calling for the state Department of Education to provide teachers with the training and educational materials needed for Holocaust education.The most significant difference between Clymer’s bill and the other proposals is that his does not include a mandate.
But the passage of the legislation would enable schools to receive Holocaust education funding beginning in 2015, according to Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition. The state has not provided such funding since 2008.
The board of the lobbying organization,which represents the interests of Jewish federations and other Jewish organizations throughout the state, is considering whether or not to support the legislation, Butler said.
“We would like a mandate but we have already had five years” without state funding for Holocaust education, Butler said.
Fink-Whitman and Boyle said that legislation with no mandate would accomplish little.
Boyle, who is running to replace U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz in the House of Representatives, has appeared with Fink-Whitman on several local radio shows and said the video “illustrates the point that I’ve been trying to make, that this legislation is absolutely needed.”
Fink-Whitman said she spent 12 years researching and writing her novel, which is inspired by her mother, Tania Fink, who was born in Berlin just before Kristallnacht. “I always felt that she had an important story to tell and that I could educate people about the Holocaust through her story,” said the author, who belongs to Temple Judea in Bucks County. Her mother, 75, lives in Northeast Philadelphia.
The idea for the video came out of a conversation the writer had with her son’s college-age friends in which she mentioned a quote from Winston Churchill, and they did not know who he was.
“My jaw hit the floor. That got me thinking, ‘I wonder what else kids don’t know about the Holocaust.’ ” she said.
While she is encouraged by the attention the video has gotten, Fink-Whitman said she “will not be doing a victory dance until every student in Pennsylvania has the same opportunity to learn about the Holocaust and genocide.”