Holocaust survivor from Amherst shares perspective on genocide education bill 

  • Holocaust survivor Henia Lewin, of North Amherst, speaks Jan. 30, 2018, to seventh and eighth graders at Granby Junior-Senior High School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Holocaust survivor Henny Lewin, 78, of North Amherst, speaks Jan. 30, 2018 to seventh and eighth-graders at Granby Junior Senior High School. —SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Saturday, January 11, 2020

AMHERST — A Holocaust survivor who lives in Amherst, and has extensive knowledge about how to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides, is among those supporting a state bill that would mandate such education in public schools.

Invited to the State House by state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, Henia Lewin testified in October in favor of the Genocide Education Act, which would require every school district in Massachusetts to adopt genocide curriculum that addresses “the notion that national, ethnic, racial or religious hatred can overtake any nation or society, leading to calamitous consequences.”

Testifying before the Joint Committee on Education in support of the bill, Lewin noted that she was 18 months old in 1941 when she was rescued from a Lithuanian ghetto, being invaded by Nazi forces, by being placed in a suitcase.

“I have found that people don’t know about the Holocaust, not just kids in school and college students, but even adults,” Lewin told the joint committee.

Lewin often shares her survival story with students and teachers around the state, with the hope that educating young people about what happened in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s can discourage hatred and prejudice in the future. Her most frequent and captive audience are sixth and seventh graders.

“I find that they are very receptive and emotionally moved and asked wonderful questions about what it was like to be a child during the war,” Lewin said.

Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, and Rep. Jeffrey Roy, D-Franklin, have filed the legislation, which already has the support of 94 legislators, including many from western Massachusetts.

Domb, who represents Amherst, Pelham and part of Granby, told the joint committee she is concerned about what is happening in the United States during the Trump presidency, with mosques and synagogues being targeted by domestic terrorists.

“When our government cuts the numbers of people allowed to enter the country based on asylum, reduces the numbers of refugees that we’ll accept, or proposes to ban people from Muslim countries from entering the country, it’s a reminder of when America used the immigration quota system as a basis for turning away people who were fleeing Nazi Germany, 80 years ago,” Domb said.

Domb called for the legislation to be fast-tracked, observing that the White House failed to condemn the actions of white people carrying torches and yelling “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia, and when human beings have been referred to as “animals” and “rats.”

“We need our students to learn that stereotypes and ethnic hatred can escalate to atrocity,” Domb said. “And we need our students to learn that when leaders of a nation start espousing these messages, it is a dangerous situation, an alarm that calls us to action.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.ocm