A scary new survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day purported to show that Americans are forgetting the atrocities of the Holocaust. What it really showed, however, was that Americans don’t learn enough to forget in the first place.
The poll, conducted by Claims Conference, a group that administers compensation and other services to Holocaust survivors, found that 40 percent of millennials couldn’t name a single death camp or ghetto. No Auschwitz, no Bergen-Belsen. And 31 percent of all Americans — and 41 percent of millennials — believe that fewer than 2 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. The number is actually 6 million.
While we still use “millennials” as shorthand for young people, millennials currently range in age from mid-20s to late-30s. These are adults.
The shocked reaction to the survey is understandable but misguided. A 1993 study by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency found that “38 percent of adults and 53 percent of high-school students either said they ‘don’t know’ or offered completely incorrect answers” when asked to define the term “the Holocaust.”
Part of it is a failure of education. The 2008 book “The Emergence of Holocaust Education in American Schools” by Thomas Daniel Fallace found that in the 1960s, the Holocaust barely got a mention in American public schools. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Holocaust education became a regular subject of study.
Yet lack of Holocaust knowledge had become so pervasive that in 2016 Michigan and Rhode Island passed bills requiring Holocaust and genocide education in high school, joining New York, New Jersey, California, Florida and Illinois. Several organizations are pushing to expand this mandate to all 50 states.
That would be a good start. As these surveys show, students need to be taught not just the basics but the details. The Holocaust stands apart as one of the few world events students should have to master.
There have been genocides before, and since, but the scale and methods of murder in the Holocaust are unparalleled. Two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe were wiped out in killings that occurred throughout numerous countries. The systematic way that the Nazis rounded up Jews and attempted to extinguish them was a unique historical event.
We think that as civilization advances, we’ll have less cause to kill each other. Barbarians slaughter each other for no reason; sophisticated people do not. The Holocaust was proof that that’s false. Winston Churchill wrote that the Holocaust was “the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men.”
With the recent spike in anti-Semitism across the world — including the European ground where it happened the first time — remembering how the Holocaust happened, how it developed, how responses to it evolved, etc., becomes a much more important task.
And, crucially, Jews can’t do it alone. Like a word repeated too often, the stories lose their meaning. The TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” featured a comedic song about Jews overemphasizing their suffering. “I don’t want to bring up the Holocaust. I know, I know, the Holocaust. But the Holocaust was a really big deal. Remember that we suffered,” Tovah Feldsher sings.
It’s a joke, but there’s some truth there. In the same way people mock Rudy Giuliani for being “president of 9/11,” Jews are mocked, and mock themselves, for always having the Holocaust at the forefront of their lives.
But this is no time to pipe down. There are still survivors of the Holocaust, people who made it out of the death camps, eluded the gas chambers, walking around to tell the tales. What happens when they’re gone if Jews are too sheepish to tell their story?
There are over 60 Holocaust museums and memorials throughout the United States. Visiting them should be a part of the curriculum of any school in the vicinity of one of them.
It shouldn’t end at high school either. Any world history course that includes study of the 20th century should be spending some time on the Holocaust, preferably in depth.
Adults ignorant of what happened were all teenagers once who weren’t taught properly.
The problem with an event that causes us to ask “how could this have happened?” is that it’s so easy to shift to “this couldn’t have happened.” It could, it did and people need to know it.