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Oregon student with ties to Kelso helps pass education legislation

14-year-old Oregonian Claire Sarnowski, who has family ties to Kelso, was inspired by her relationship with Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener in advocating a recently passed law mandating Oregon schools cover the Holocaust in education lessons. In the above photo, Sarnowski poses for a portrait with Wiener's book "From A Name to A Number: A Holocaust Survivor's Autobiography." 

Claire Sarnowski enjoys connecting with history through the personal accounts of those who lived through it.

It’s a habit the 14-year-old Lake Oswego, Ore., girl picked up as a child during visits to her grandmother’s home in Kelso — and that helped her successfully advocate for a newly passed law mandating that Oregon schools teach lessons about the Holocaust.

“The older generation has so many stories to tell, and I think it doesn’t go unnoticed in this area. … In small towns, I think that is really the heart of the community,” she told The Daily News Friday.

“You never know if someone next door might have a history or story that might be impactful,” she added.

Her interest in history drove her to befriend the late Alter Wiener, a Holocaust survivor living in Hillsboro, Ore., after she heard him speak about his experience in Germany’s Blechhammer forced-labor camp for Jews at her aunt’s school in Salem as a 9-year-old.

After five years of friendship, she joined Wiener on a quest to pass a bill in the Oregon Legislature to mandate schools teach students about the Holocaust. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown officially signed the bill into law last week.

“I knew his dream was to mandate Holocaust education in Oregon — and in all schools, but in particular Oregon. He mentioned that to me many times,” Claire said of Wiener, who died at age 92 in December when he was hit by a car.

Wiener and Claire started their pursuit for the law together in September. Claire was inspired to help Wiener after she noticed how each teacher at her school approached their Holocaust lessons differently, leaving some students with little knowledge of the genocide.

“For example, the first grasp at Holocaust education was in eighth grade, and the requirement was to read a passage out of the ‘Diary of Anne Frank.’ We had to read a passage halfway through the book on page 100 and something,” Claire said, speaking of the girl who documented her Jewish family’s life hiding from the Nazis in a secret loft in Amsterdam.

“For people who might not know who Anne Frank was or what the Holocaust was or what World War II was ... I’m sure they were confused the reason for reading that or what it even meant.”

Claire herself had a vast knowledge of the Holocaust from listening to Wiener’s stories during her weekly visits to his Hillsboro apartment. He would recount his personal experience — and his message of putting love above hatred.

“I think that was the biggest impression (Wiener) made on her: He could survive something that terrible and still have love in his heart,” said Claire’s grandmother, Pat Luft.

Wiener also spoke frequently at regional schools, including visits to Kelso and Longview in the late 2000s.

Wiener “presented the idea that there a lot of Holocaust survivors that can no longer speak anymore,” which highlighted the need for Holocaust education in schools, Claire said.

Learning about the Holocaust teaches children “lessons of resilience, kindness, respect and how to stand up for what you believe in,” Claire said. It also documents the consequences of racism.

Claire’s primary role in their legislative quest was “just gathering support” and spreading the word about the campaign, she said.

But after Wiener’s death, she stepped up to fill his leadership role, continuing to testify in favor of the bill throughout the session.

Claire was determined to finish Wiener’s work to push the law through successfully. Though she can’t yet drive, Claire said her young age didn’t deter her from learning to balance a full high school schedule with long, sometimes uncertain days advocating at the state capitol in Salem.

“My education about the Holocaust and World War II has allowed me to be more self-aware,” Claire said. “I think part of my consciousness has been developed in my friendship with Alter.”

Claire said she believes youth involvement bolstered Wiener’s mission to pass the bill after several of his own attempts failed, Claire said. The campaign “very much needed” to hear from “someone who had been affected by the education, who is not a teacher.”

“I know there’s a big portion of us who do care about our future and our education,” Claire said of her peers. “I think that right there is a voice of its own.”

Every time Claire spoke before the Oregon Legislature, her grandmother drove down from Kelso to watch and support her.

“It was an amazing experience. You don’t realize how important something like this is until somebody speaks up,” Luft said.

Claire also gained a following from Longview educators, thanks to her second-cousin Patty Street. Street is a teacher’s aide at Cascade Middle School.

“I am in very close touch with my cousin, Carol (Sarnowski, Claire’s mother), and she would tell me on the days they are going to Salem, and I’d ask her how it went,” said Street, who also relayed the news to her interested co-workers.

“I have watched Claire evolve through this whole process, and I am amazed at her knowledge. This 14-year-old girl has, at times, more knowledge than a history teacher,” Street said.

Washington also passed a law this year relating to Holocaust education. However, that bill only “strongly encourages” schools to teach students about the Holocaust. It doesn’t mandate lessons like Oregon’s law.

Luft said Washington’s law doesn’t “emphasize the importance of training teachers.”

Claire was also wary of the Washington law, noting that “a mandate in particular is more helpful to connect people” to adequate resources and curriculum.

Claire added that she’d be happy to offer advice to Washingtonians — or students in other states — who want to see a Holocaust education mandate in their own states.

“Definitely if I get the opportunity or am asked, I’d like to work up here with the community … I think my success came from being able to use many resources I was able to find through contacts on the internet, and I would definitely like to be that resource to help somebody else.”

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