Students’ efforts lead to Holocaust law

Eighth-grade students at St. Francis of Assisi School gathered April 19 to discuss the Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act, which was signed into law by Governor Matt Bevin April 2. The students helped draft, propose and win support for the bill. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

Thanks in part to the work of St. Francis of Assisi School’s eighth-grade class, middle and high school students across Kentucky will now be taught in the classroom about the Holocaust and other acts of genocide.

The Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act was signed into law by Governor Matt Bevin April 2.

Eighth-graders at St. Francis of Assisi studied the Holocaust in religion class and were so moved, they wanted to make sure every child their age had the same opportunity, said members of the class during an interview last month.

“It’s important for all children in Kentucky to learn about the Holocaust, because it’s important for them to be aware of human nature at its very best and at its very worst,” said Mary Claire Stukenborg, an eighth-grader.

She took that message to Frankfort, where she and several classmates testified before the House and Senate education committees. 

The students worked with Fred Gross, a local man who survived the Holocaust, and the bill’s sponsors — Rep. John Carney and Rep. Mary Lou Marzian — to draft, propose and win support for the bill, said Fred Whittaker, a St. Francis of Assisi teacher who coordinated the effort.

The bill’s success took prayers and action, he said.

Students, parents and supporters made hundreds of phone calls and sent hundreds of emails and letters to legislators in Frankfort seeking support for the bill, said Whittaker.

The entire eighth-grade class traveled to Frankfort twice and other members of the class did so half a dozen times during the 2018 legislative session, which ended in mid-April.

In addition to Mary Claire, several other students told the education committees why it’s important to support the bill.

Tess Schrenger shared with the committees that the millions who perished in the Holocaust “were people just like us. They had families, favorite colors and favorite foods.” The lessons learned from the Holocaust are ones that “should remain in peoples’ hearts,” she said.

Alice Beatty said learning about the Holocaust will be a reminder that “we cannot let ourselves fall into indifference to the suffering of others.”

Student Caitlin Calvery said every child, whether they attend a private school or are Catholic, should learn about the Holocaust because “hatred affects us all. It’s important to defeat every type of hatred and learning about the Holocaust is one way” to do so.

Rosemary Peters said “after studying the holocaust I felt deeply connected to the Jewish community and the victims of the Holocaust.” She believes that in order to “speak out to the fullest” against hatred it’s necessary to feel a connection to the group being harmed.

Will Ballantine, another eighth-grader who testified, said he was “awe-inspired” by the passing of the bill. Acts of hatred, he said, usually start small with name-calling or with an idea such as a world without Jews.

“Like drops of water filling a bucket eventually it overflows. If people had stood up this may not have happened.”

Whittaker said the bill was in the works for 10 years. The Ernie Marx Holocaust Education Act, which won legislative approval in 2008, allowed for students to study the Holocaust, but did not make it a requirement, said Whittaker. This new bill is an amendment to the 2008 act.

Whittaker said the students emphasized the Gospel call “to encounter and find Christ in one another. We’re most fully alive when we step into the lives of the people that suffer and are forgotten,” he said.

The Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act will go into effect a year from now.

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