In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the state of Kentucky, where Jews make up 0.3 percent of the state’s 4.5 million people, became the ninth state to mandate Holocaust education for middle and high school students. The effort was led, ironically, by a Catholic middle school teacher in Louisville.
At around the same time, Holocaust denier and reported Nazi Arthur Jones won the Republican primary for a House seat in a heavily Democratic district in Illinois, despite attempts by the state’s GOP to distance itself from Jones, who ran unopposed.
The sense of whiplash resulting from those two events is replicated in dramatic fashion in a new national survey of Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust — it reveals both a considerable ignorance of the Shoah and a considerable desire for Holocaust education.
The survey, timed to coincide with Yom HaShoah, found that 70 percent of Americans say fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to, and that 31 percent of all Americans and more than 4-in-10 millennials believe that substantially fewer than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or less) during the Holocaust. Nearly half (49 percent) of all respondents said 6 million Jews perished.
And, in an ominous finding, the survey revealed that 58 percent of Americans believe something like the Holocaust could happen again.
The survey showed both a considerable ignorance of the Shoah and a considerable desire for Holocaust education.
But the poll, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also found 93 percent of respondents believe all students should learn about the Holocaust in school. And that 8-in-10 Americans say it is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust so it does not happen again.
The survey, “The Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study,” was carried out by Schoen Consulting; it is based on interviews conducted with 1,350 Americans in February.
“The 58 percent of Americans who assert that ‘something like the Holocaust could happen again’ is a most important finding in the poll,” Jerome Chanes, who has written a number of books on anti-Semitism, said in an email interview. “It tells us that Americans (including American Jews) do not understand that the conditions that led to the destruction of European Jewry simply are not present in the United States.
“In the early decades of the 20th century, anti-Semitism, often combined with rabid nationalism, was deeply embedded in the institutions — often the formal institutions — of society across Europe, especially in Central and Eastern Europe,” Chanes continued. “This has never been the case in a pluralistic and democratic America, whatever anti-Semitism was there.”
The study “found significant gaps in knowledge of the Holocaust,” Claims Conference board member Matthew Bronfman said in a release. “We must take a look at these results and determine where and how best we can begin teaching the next generation these critical lessons which must resonate for decades to come.”
The “gaps in knowledge of the Holocaust” have persisted over time, according to other polling data.
In a 2017 roundup of Holocaust polling from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, Roper staffers write, “Despite the enormity of the Holocaust, and the many books, movies, museums and memorials aimed at ensuring remembrance, Americans in more recent years have shown surprising ignorance of what happened under the Nazis.”
Roper cited a 1985 Time magazine/Yankelovich, Skelly & White poll that found that only 69 percent of respondents could say what the Holocaust was in their own words. When Americans were asked how many Jews died in the Holocaust in a 2005 American Jewish Committee/Taylor Nelson Sofres poll, just 33 percent were able to select the correct number, while only 44 percent were able to identify Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka as the names of concentration camps.
According to Roper, “This survey was fielded in multiple countries, and differences in knowledge varied significantly. Perhaps aware that U.S. public knowledge about the Holocaust is weaker than it should be, a strong majority of Americans support education in this area.” Roper also cited a 2006 Genocide Intervention Network/Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll that found that 79 percent of Americans supported mandatory Holocaust education in public schools.
Seen in that light, the new poll reveals that Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust and sensitivity to the need for Holocaust education may actually be increasing. Where the 2005 AJC poll found that 33 percent knew that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, the new survey puts that figure at 49 percent. And where the AJC poll found that 44 percent were able to identify the names of concentration camps, the new survey finds that 63 percent of Americans identified Auschwitz either as a concentration camp or a death/extermination camp.
In addition, the new survey found that 88 percent of Americans believe Holocaust education should be compulsory in school, up from 80 percent in the AJC 2005 poll.
“We shouldn’t really be that surprised… The Holocaust has always been a moral mystery. It could never be fully understood or properly assimilated.”
Still, the findings of the new Claims Conference survey can appear troubling, even shocking, despite the fact that Holocaust denial is almost nonexistent in the U.S. Only 39 percent of Americans said that they were aware that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected, while 52 percent believed he took power by force. Only 37 percent knew that the Holocaust took place in Poland, home to most of the death camps. And nearly half (45 percent) of all Americans cannot name a single death or concentration camp.
“We shouldn’t really be that surprised,” Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor, novelist and voice for the so-called “second-generation” Holocaust survivors, told The Jewish Week in an email. “The Holocaust has always been a moral mystery. It could never be fully understood or properly assimilated. … The survey proves the point — there was no silver bullet or antidote to genocide. It was going to happen again, and it did — several times, in fact, since the end of the Holocaust, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Bosnia, Congo and Sudan.
“All that Holocaust education and cultural depictions of the Holocaust,” Rosenbaum continued, “were always most successful with selective, self-referential audiences. It could never be retained by a general audience obsessed with the Kardashians and ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ The real question is: for those people who wanted to know, for whom the genocide of European Jewry was singular, did all of the museums, memorials, memoirs, films and novels advance their knowledge and have special, moral meaning?”
The survey suggests an ambiguous answer. For instance, 85 percent of Americans are familiar with Anne Frank, the teenage diarist who has become a symbol both of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and universal goodness in a dark time. Fifty-four percent of respondents are familiar with Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film “Schindler’s List.” And nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) agree with the statement that the Holocaust is “unique and different than any other act of genocide in the 20th or 21st century.”
“[The survey offers] a road map of the work we have to do to enshrine that the Holocaust won’t be forgotten.”
Yet, Americans’ generalized lack of knowledge of the Holocaust was the takeaway for some observers. While admitting that surveys can often be “a blunt instrument [to determine what] people really know” about a subject, David Marwell, the former head of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park and a member of a task force that formulated questions for the survey, was “surprised” by the results. “The idea that 41 percent of people were unable to name Auschwitz — which has become an icon of the Holocaust — is shocking in some ways. Someone who has a good Holocaust education should know these things.”
Greg Schneider, the Claims Conference’s executive vice president, saw the survey at least partly in hopeful terms, and looked to the future. He cited what he said was “a shocking paucity of knowledge about the Shoah across all age groups.” But he quickly added, “There’s very little consensus on anything in civic life these days, but the survey shows an emerging consensus — 93 percent of Americans believe that all students should learn about the Holocaust at school. That’s extraordinary.
“People don’t know the details, but they understand the importance of the Holocaust,” Schneider continued. “Holocaust education is mandated in nine states. What’s happening in the other 41? That needs to be fixed. The survey,” he concluded, offers “a road map of the work we have to do to enshrine that the Holocaust won’t be forgotten.”