Americans are notoriously ignorant about history. So it’s disappointing — but not surprising — that a survey published last week found that ignorance of the Holocaust grows the further a generation of Americans is from the horrific event itself.
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 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, there’s barely a Jewish event when the Holocaust is not invoked, 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.
But let’s be careful not to equate Holocaust ignorance with anti-Semitism. Ignorance can, and should, be treated with education. 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.