There were more than 40,000 ghettos and concentration camps erected by Nazis across Europe during World War II. But a new survey released last week shows that almost half of Americans (45 percent) cannot name a single one. That number is even higher among millennials (49 percent).
Auschwitz is a word that for our community needs no explanation. But, apparently, that’s not the case for everybody else. The study, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and released on Yom Hashoah, found that an eye-popping 41 percent of Americans surveyed couldn’t identify Auschwitz as a concentration or extermination camp. Among millennials, it was even worse: 66 percent could not identify Auschwitz.
The survey makes for incredulous reading: 11 percent of all U.S. adults and 22 percent of millennials had not heard of the Holocaust or weren’t sure if they did. And a sizeable minority severely underestimated the scope of the genocide: 31 percent of all Americans and 41 percent of millennials believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
The findings suggest that the Jewish community lives in a Holocaust bubble. We’ve built Holocaust museums, we regularly hold Yom Hashoah memorials, and we keep reminding ourselves that the survivors are dwindling. The Pew Research Center even found that remembering the Holocaust is the top way American Jews identify as Jews. Have we been preaching “Never again” to the choir?
The same day as the Claims Conference survey results were announced, the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University released “Antisemitism Worldwide.” The report found that while violent anti-Semitic attacks have dropped steadily since 2006, attacks on the whole have become more violent. Witness the murder last month in France of an 85-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor, who was targeted for robbery, stabbed to death, and her body set on fire.
“The most disturbing finding, as in 2016,” the Kantor Center report reads, “is the prevalent ominous feeling of insecurity among Jews in Europe.” Not for the first time, the extreme right, the anti-Zionist left and anti-Semitic radical Islamists were blamed for the growing insecurity. “Europe’s largest Jewish communities are experiencing a … mainstreaming of anti-Semitism not seen since the Second World War,” according to the report.
Holocaust ignorance cannot and should not be equated with anti-Semitism. But ignorance can, and should, be treated with education. One heartening piece of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims study was that more than nine out of 10 respondents believe that all schools should teach the Holocaust, and that 80 percent of respondents said that it is important to teach the Holocaust so that it does not happen again.
Thanks in large part to the work of statewide Jewish Federations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has greatly improved and expanded Holocaust education in its schools with the passage of Act 80, signed into law in 2014 by Gov. Tom Wolf. Although pursuant to that law Holocaust education is not mandatory, schools are now encouraged by the commonwealth to teach the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations.
We must continue to promote Holocaust remembrance — not just in our communal bubble or among politicians courting Jewish support — but also more broadly. And, instead of relying on millennials to educate themselves about the Holocaust, let’s focus our efforts to ensure that school curricula everywhere devote proper attention and focus to addressing one of the most horrific periods in world history. We owe at least that much to the 6 million who perished, and to our Jewish future. PJC