In the weeks leading up to this week’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 population, became the ninth state to mandate Holocaust education for middle and high school students. The effort was led by a Catholic middle school teacher in Louisville.
At around the same time, Arthur Jones, a Holocaust denier and reported Nazi, 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, he 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 Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study” was carried out by Schoen Consulting in February and is based on interviews conducted with 1,350 Americans. The survey, timed to coincide with Yom HaShoah, found that 70 percent of Americans believe fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to, and that 31 percent of all Americans, and more than four in 10 millennials, think that substantially less than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during World War II. Just under half (49 percent) of all respondents said, correctly, that six million Jews perished. And, in an ominous finding, the survey revealed that 58 percent of Americans believe something like the Holocaust could happen again.
On the positive side, the poll, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also found 93 percent of respondents are of the opinion that all students should learn about the Holocaust in school, and that eight in 10 Americans say it is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust so it won’t be repeated.
Also encouraging, the new poll reveals that, compared to the results of a 2005 poll by the American Jewish Committee (AJC)/Taylor Nelson Sofres, Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust and sensitivity to the need for Holocaust education may actually be increasing.
Still, some of the findings of the new Claims Conference survey appear troubling in the lack of awareness of the tragedy’s details, despite the fact that Holocaust denial is almost nonexistent in the U.S.
“We shouldn’t really be that surprised,” Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor, novelist, and voice for the so-called “second-generation” Holocaust survivors, told NJJN 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.”
Greg Schneider, the Claims Conference’s executive vice president, saw the survey at least partly in hopeful terms. “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.”
It is, and the people of New Jersey should be proud that their state was at the forefront of this movement more than two decades ago: In 1994, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed the N.J. Holocaust Education Mandate into law, requiring the lessons be incorporated into curriculums for every public elementary and public school. The N.J. Commission on Holocaust Education does its part to ensure that the lessons of genocide make it into classrooms across the state.
What’s the catch?
“Holocaust education is mandated in nine states,” Schneider notes. “What’s happening in the other 41? That needs to be fixed.”
On Yom HaShoah, we remember why.