'F' for effort

Pennsylvania fails Shoah 101

To bolster a burgeoning bill mandating state-wide Holocaust education, a survivor’s daughter quizzes random college students on film

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Rhonda Fink-Whitman at Pennsylvania campuses, finding Holocaust ignorance. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Rhonda Fink-Whitman at Pennsylvania campuses, finding Holocaust ignorance. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Rhonda Fink-Whitman is more into showing than telling. Outraged that there is currently no mandate in Pennsylvania for public schools to teach about the Holocaust and genocide, she could have written letters to her elected officials, or maybe tried to speak with them at their offices. But she decided instead to make a video, and let it do the talking in her bid to convince state lawmakers to pass a Holocaust and Genocide Education Bill introduced in 2012 by Representative Brendan Boyle.

Fink-Whitman is hopeful that the politicians will realize that the proposed mandate is the answer, especially when they see how college students can’t respond correctly (if at all) to basic Holocaust-related history questions posed to them in the video.

She stopped students randomly (but only interviewed those who said they had gone to Pennsylvania public schools) on the campuses of Temple University, Drexel University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania. She asked them questions like, “What was the Holocaust?” “Where did the Holocaust happen?” “Which country was Adolf Hitler the leader of?” “When did WWII take place?” “What was Auschwitz?” “How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust” and “What is genocide?”

The most common answer from the young people? — “I don’t know.”

“These aren’t slackers. These kids were smart enough to get in to good colleges, even an Ivy League one,” noted Fink-Whitman. “So, the fault lies with Pennsylvania’s public school system.”

The 50-year-old Philadelphian was also shocked to discover how little her two grown children’s public school-educated friends knew about WWII and the Holocaust. This revelation, along with her learning that only five states (California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and New York) in the union have a law on the books mandating Holocaust education in public schools, spurred Fink-Whitman to take action.

As a counterpoint to the blank stares and stammered responses of former Pennsylvanian pupils, Fink-Whitman also included intelligent, informed responses and asked the students where they were raised. Proving her point, the students answered New Jersey and New York, two states that mandated Holocaust education.

Sometimes it's better to laugh than cry. A student asks for a hint in answering the question, 'Who were the Allies?' (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Sometimes it’s better to laugh than cry. A student asks for a hint in answering the question, ‘Who were the Allies?’ (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

With a career in TV and radio broadcasting under her belt (she has hocked merchandise on the air as a QVC guest host, and she now reports for Tango Traffic), Fink-Whitman was not shy about going in front of the camera.

This project, however, is not directly related to her broadcasting work. Rather, it is an extension of her teaching Hebrew school for many years, and also of her recently authoring a book about the Holocaust. “94 Maidens,” is a novel based on the personal story of Fink-Whitman’s mother, a Holocaust survivor.

Fink-Whitman has sent the 15-minute video, which has garnered some 27,000 hits to date, to every representative in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives twice, and three times to the chair of the House’s Education Committee.

“I’ve gotten a handful of responses,” Fink-Whitman shared. “They are mostly from the representatives who voted for it the first time.”

With the House of Representatives having voted down the bill, it is now stuck back in committee.

'Where is Normandy?' asks Rhonda Fink-Whitman. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
‘Where is Normandy?’ asks Rhonda Fink-Whitman. (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

“But I’m hopeful, because some of the responses are from those who voted ‘no’ previously. They haven’t committed to voting ‘yes’ on it next time, but at least they told me that the video was a real eye-opener,” she added.

Fink-Whitman is confident that if the mandate passes in Pennsylvania, “the rest of the states will fall in line like dominoes.”

She’s picked her battle, and she’s going to stick with it.

“I just added ‘activist’ to my LinkedIn profile,” she said.

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