Story of Survival

Local author Rhonda Fink-Whitman discusses her book and the importance of Holocaust education.

Powerful words: Rhonda Fink-Whitman, a Somerton native, is pictured above with her mother, Tania Fink. The author recently discussed her first novel, 94 Maidens, at Michael’s Family Restaurant. The book chronicles her mother’s experience in the Holocaust. TIMES FILE PHOTO

“If you think one person can’t make a difference, look at me. Who am I? I’m nobody. But I march forward.”

Author Rhonda Fink-Whitman, a Somerton native, stood in front of her captivated audience at Michael’s Family Restaurant on May 2, clutching her first novel, 94 Maidens. Fink-Whitman’s presentation was part of the Bensalem Rotary Club’s weekly meeting, but this wasn’t your average lecture. She spoke about the courage of seeing a problem and having the drive and determination to do something about it.

94 Maidens chronicles Fink-Whitman’s mother’s experience in the Holocaust 70 years ago. The novel features three real-life stories woven together, which include three school girls captured in Poland, a young family’s trials in Berlin and the adventure of Fink-Whitman, along with her husband and son, traveling to Europe to gain access to sealed Nazi documents to discover the full truth about what her mother went through.

TIMES FILE PHOTO

It took 12 years for Fink-Whitman — who attended Watson Comly Elementary School, CCA Baldi Middle School and George Washington High School — to write 94 Maidens, which she originally set out to make a screenplay.

After 12 trips to Hollywood to pitch the story to producers, she decided to turn it into a book. According to her, it is a quick read since she wanted children to enjoy it as well. The book is required reading in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and Bensalem High School uses it in the curriculum for grades 11 and 12.

Throughout Fink-Whitman’s journey to Europe and writing her first novel, she drew inspiration from a bracelet that rarely left her wrist. Inscribed across it is a quote from Winston Churchill that reads, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Her daughter and her friends, who just graduated high school, all loved the saying but had no idea who Churchill was.

“How do these kids go through four years of high school and not know who Winston Churchill is? What else don’t they know?” she asked.

After this realization, Fink-Whitman set out to get Holocaust education mandated in Pennsylvania schools with the passing of a bill. She was consistently told to contact state legislators to vote “yes” on the bill, but she knew more needed to be done.

Three years ago, Fink-Whitman packed a microphone and camera and visited the campuses of Drexel University, Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania to test students on their knowledge of the Holocaust, World War II and the basic history surrounding these major events. What she found was not encouraging.

Questions for what became “The Mandate Video” ranged from simple to moderate, yet most students went blank or gave highly incorrect answers, for example, stating the Holocaust took place more than 300 years ago. The only students who not only knew the answers but gave detailed explanations attended grade school in New Jersey, where Holocaust education was mandated in 1994. New York also mandated that same year. Fink-Whitman called her experience while filming a teachable moment.

“You can’t blame the kids, no one is teaching it to them,” she said. “We have a problem in Pennsylvania, but there’s this bill and we can fix it.”

The bill eventually reached the legislators, but got severely watered down to where teachers could include Holocaust education in their curriculum only if they wanted to. Fink-Whitman believed it should be mandatory. Meanwhile, “The Mandate Video” was going viral on the internet, and today has more than 443,000 views. Different states and even countries were reaching out to her, asking how they could help. She told each of them to tell their state representatives they wanted this bill passed. She told them to tweet, email and do whatever they could to get the state’s attention.

Eventually, the bill got passed along to the Senate and was amended to state Holocaust education is required, not voluntary. A curriculum was built, and teachers were trained with the requirement of reporting to the state that they were following it.

“Pennsylvania broke the glass ceiling. We helped pass a bill that hasn’t been mandated in 20 years,” she said.

Since “The Mandate Video,” the country is close to having its ninth state, Massachusetts, mandate the bill.

In Fink-Whitman’s perfect world, Holocaust education would be required nationally, but she needs congressional support to get it to that level. According to House Resolution 276, which is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, including Holocaust education is ultimately up to each individual state, but Congress can and will strongly encourage it. ••