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Learning About The Holocaust Could Soon Be Mandatory In Oregon Thanks To This Friendship


And now, the story of how an unlikely friendship between an octogenarian and a young girl could change what Oregon students learn in school. Claire Sarnowski met Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener four years ago. Sarnowski was an elementary school student, and Wiener was giving a talk about surviving the Holocaust.


CLAIRE SARNOWSKI: And I was very excited. And once I got down there and heard him, it truly was so inspirational.


The two developed a deep friendship. Here's Sarnowski speaking to Oregon Public Broadcasting last December.


CLAIRE: It was almost like we were old friends every time that we talked. The age difference was something neither one of us really looked at. It was more of just the commonality we shared and what we were all about living our lives like.

CORNISH: Wiener was born in Poland. After the Nazis invaded, he was held in five different concentration camps. He was ultimately freed in 1945. Sixty-two years later, he published his autobiography called "From A Name To A Number." He detailed his story of survival.

SHAPIRO: Wiener's lifelong dream was to implement mandatory teaching about the Holocaust in schools. Even though Wiener died in a car accident last December, Sarnowski wanted to keep a dream of his alive.


CLAIRE: 'Cause he always dreamed about getting Holocaust and genocide education mandated for the state of Oregon. So I reached out to State Senator Rob Wagner.

SHAPIRO: The Oregon state senator didn't need much convincing to sponsor the legislation.

ROB WAGNER: And I researched some national models from across the country. But ultimately, it was the opportunity to work directly with Claire and the special friendship that she had with Alter.

CORNISH: Alter Wiener's dream became House bill 664. The state Senate passed it in March, and the House passed it last week.

SHAPIRO: All it needs now is Oregon Governor Kate Brown's signature, something State Senator Wagner is optimistic about. He credits the relationship between a high school student and a Holocaust survivor with making it possible.

WAGNER: It was amazingly touching seeing someone who established a true friendship, despite eight decades in age difference. They were able to really identify with each other at a deep level. It was incredibly special to watch.

CORNISH: The new curriculum aims to, quote, "prepare students to confront the immorality of the Holocaust, genocide and other acts of mass violence and to reflect on the causes of related historical events." Sarnowski thinks people will benefit from learning about the experiences her special friend endured.


CLAIRE: And I also know that these messages are so much more than just a lesson in history that you read out of a textbook. There's lessons about kindness, respect and not taking things for granted. That's something that Alter's story taught me.

SHAPIRO: If the bill is signed by Governor Brown, it will go into law for the 2020-21 school year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.