Washington — In the first report card on American knowledge about the Holocaust and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here, respondents indicated that they knew more about the destruction of European Jewry than many experts believed.
More important, a solid majority of the sample — a representative cross-section of 1,641 Jews and non-Jews — said they see Holocaust education as vitally important in preventing new instances of persecution and genocide.
But most Americans, while understanding the rough outlines of the Holocaust, have a poor understanding of the details, according to a survey released this week as part of the museum’s fifth anniversary celebration and coinciding with Yom HaShoah, the annual worldwide commemoration of the Holocaust.
That, officials of the museum said, may make them more susceptible to politically
charged theories about the Holocaust.
“These numbers tell us that knowledge about the Holocaust is a mile wide but a millimeter deep,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, a leading Holocaust scholar and a member of the museum’s board. “It tells us that while many people have been exposed to the general lessons of the Holocaust, they know very little in the way of specifics.”
That general, impressionistic knowledge, she said, “can lead to serious misconceptions about the Holocaust.”
The survey was conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. A second, smaller survey looked at non-Jewish visitors to the museum last year.
“We knew there was this tremendous response to the museum, but we wanted to really assess what was behind it,” said Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s acting director. “What we found was substantially more interest in the Holocaust than any of us expected. And the percentage of people who want to learn more — 66 percent overall — indicates that there is a whole audience out there for what the museum has to offer that we haven’t even started to touch.”
Respondents resoundingly rejected the suggestion that the Holocaust “is not very relevant today and it’s finally time to stop discussing it and put it behind us.” Eighty-three percent agreed instead that the Holocaust “is still relevant to events and situations that are happening today and should continue to be discussed.”
Asked why the Holocaust remains relevant, respondents brought up a number of reasons, including atrocities in Bosnia, China and Rwanda and their view that “there are leaders like Hitler today.”
About 81 percent said that the Holocaust remains “very important” or “extremely important” as an instrument for teaching the lessons of history.
In fact, respondents rated the Holocaust as second only to the American Revolution as a topic in teaching history, a rating that surprised museum officials.
The poll suggested that Americans have major gaps in their knowledge of the Holocaust, but that a surprising number want to learn more.Some 33 percent did not know that Gypsies and others were also persecuted by the Nazis, and 36 percent indicated a belief that mass killings occurred only in Germany.
Most correctly identified Jews as the primary victims of the gas chambers, but 19 percent answered incorrectly when asked if the Holocaust took place during World War II.
More troubling, 78 percent answered that Hitler and the Nazis, not the “German government,” were responsible for the Holocaust. And 71 percent indicated that the United States granted refuge “to all European Jews who asked.”
But most were not ignorant about their ignorance; a majority agreed that they didn’t know enough about the Holocaust, with African Americans and Hispanics expressing the greatest desire to learn more. Members of minority groups were also more likely to say they would like to visit the museum in Washington.
The survey suggested that Holocaust education in the schools continues to spread. Only 48 percent of respondents overall indicated that they had studied the Holocaust in school — but the figure rose to 75 percent for those under 34. Museum visitors were only slightly more likely to have studied the Holocaust in school than Americans in general.
But Lipstadt and other museum officials said that education at the post-secondary level continues to be sporadic, which contributes to the shallowness of knowledge about the events of World War II.
Some museum officials privately expressed puzzlement at several of the responses — including the 7 percent of the overall sample who said they have visited the sites of Nazi concentration camps and the 24 percent who said they knew someone who had experienced the Holocaust.
According to the survey, 77 percent of Americans have heard of the museum, which ranks it near the top of a list of leading museums in the country.
“Those numbers are staggering,” said Miles Lerman, chair of the Holocaust Memorial Council. “The recognition of the museum as a leading institution and the feeling that the lessons of the Holocaust must be taught for generations to come as a moral compass for mankind are very encouraging to us.”
The surprisingly strong level of interest in the Holocaust will reinforce a number of recent projects intended to expand the museum’s outreach beyond Washington, officials here say, including traveling exhibitions, teacher training programs, Internet outreach and educational products created by the museum.
And in the least surprising figure of all, 87 percent of visitors to the museum indicated that they were affected both intellectually and emotionally; the number saying the museum had “no effect” on them was statistically insignificant.