A West Virginia commission tasked with educating middle and high schoolers on the horrific events of the Holocaust has lain dormant for years. But some state leaders have been pushing for more than a year to bring it back. Those involved in trying to revive the commission say recent displays of anti-Semitism highlight the need for its existence.
Gov. Cecil Underwood established the West Virginia Commission on Holocaust Education in 1998 by executive order. Dr. Edith Levy, a Holocaust survivor and Morgantown resident, was the architect of the panel. She had written about her experiences and developed curriculum on the subject.
“There was nothing in the schools, the history book had one paragraph that mentioned the Holocaust. Who was it that said, if you don't learn from history, you're bound to repeat it?” Dr Levy told West Virginia Public Broadcasting five years ago.
In 2001, the Legislature enshrined the commission in state code. State law called for 11 members, including educators and state lawmakers.
As a result of declining health, Levy stepped down as chairwoman of the commission and, since then, the commission laid dormant.
“We've been in limbo since 2014,” state Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said.
Beach has served on the commission since being appointed in 2001 by then-House Speaker Bob Kiss. Later, when Beach was elected to the Senate, he became that chamber’s appointee.
Beach acknowledges that the commission has fallen off in recent years but said recent displays of anti-Semitism have motivated him and others to bring Dr. Levy’s vision back.
“It's actually her son who approached me last year following the scenario that played out in Pittsburgh at the synagogue there at the Tree of Life,” Beach explained. “So, he reached out to me during Thanksgiving last year and said, ‘Hey, what can we do to get this moving forward again?'”
“As a survivor, she saw the value of education and getting the message out, particularly at the middle school and high school levels,” Levy’s son, Laurent, said.
As part of the growing effort to revamp the group, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, nominated Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, to serve on the commission.
“Last month, I believe about the middle of November, the minority office — the Democrats in the House — we sent a letter to the Speaker of the House, requesting that I be appointed as one of only two Jews that serve in the Legislature,” Del. Pushkin said. “We asked that I'd be appointed to this commission -- and I've yet to get a response from the Speaker's office.”
House of Delegates spokesman Jared Hunt said Speaker Roger Hanshaw’s office is still researching the status of the commission and who the most recent delegate-appointee was. Basically, Hunt said, there are some technical issues that may be at play.
The commission also hasn’t been funded since 2016, according to state budget documents.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.
The renewed interest in the commission comes as a photo of West Virginia corrections officer trainees showed many in the cadet class giving an apparent Nazi salute. The story made national and international headlines, and state officials say they are nearing the end of an investigation into the matter.
Given the timing of his nomination to the commission and the discovery of the photo, Del. Pushkin said the need for the panel goes far beyond any one incident that displays hatred.
“Had this commission been up and running, would it have prevented something like this? I don't know,” Del. Pushkin said. “But I never think it's the wrong time to educate our children — even educate our adults — about the atrocities that happen when we stop seeing each other as human beings.”
Those who have ties to the commission say there are growing problems with anti-Semitism — and the Commission on Holocaust Education needs to be revived.
“There is that pattern that is redeveloping itself — in our country, in our state. Particularly we want to focus on, I think Holocaust education is the opportunity for us to let's re-educate the public and that's why we're back,” Beach said. “We're coming back to square one. It's a real education of our students and the general public that the Holocaust was a serious issue. We won't accept folks standing in a photo working for the state of West Virginia and giving the Nazi salute. It's just not acceptable.”
Laurent Levy agrees with others who see the need. Levy is not quick to pass judgement on those in the Nazi salute photo. He said it may be a joke — and maybe those cadets didn’t really know what they were doing while making that pose. Regardless, he said, those kinds of messages are dangerous and underscore the need for his mother’s commission.
“I think a lot of what you're seeing with some of this anti-Semitism around the world is simple. It's ignorance — and the only remedy for that is education. We need to have these people taught and shown — and understand what's really behind that,” Levy said of the photo depicting the corrections officer trainees giving a Nazi salute.
While other states have similar commissions that guide Holocaust education, there are others who mandate teaching the subject — in hopes of educating children.
According to the United States Holocaust Museum, 12 states require Holocaust education as part of their secondary school curriculum. West Virginia is not one of them.