Holocaust education needs an overhaul

Holocaust education needs an overhaul
© Getty Images

Last year, during the week of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) released a study on Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness in the U.S. The study revealed that while there were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, almost half of Americans (45 percent) cannot name a single one — and this percentage is even higher amongst millennials.

Additionally, nearly one-third of all Americans (31 percent) and more than 4-in-10 millennials (41 percent) believe that substantially less than six million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust. The troubling statistics led to a general outcry for Holocaust education.


One year later, we’ve released another study — this time about Holocaust knowledge and awareness in Austria, one of the countries in which the Holocaust took place. As the first country annexed by the Nazis, the birthplace of Hitler and the only country to become an absolute partner which was quickly completely integrated into Germany, we felt it was vital to gauge what citizens there knew.

Grandparents or great-grandparents were either willing participants or stood idly by as atrocities were committed against the Jews. In fact, historical footage shows city streets throughout the country teeming with Austrian citizens gleefully waving flags as the Nazis came marching in. The survey results, again, were startling.

In the Austria survey, more than one-third (36 percent) of Austrians overall, and 42 percent of millennials and Gen Z, believe two million Jews or fewer were killed during the Holocaust. Even worse, one-quarter of all Austrian respondents (25 percent), and almost one-third (30 percent) of millennials and Gen Z, believe that one million or fewer Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

We didn’t limit ourselves to asking about past atrocities, rather, we also looked to the future and again found ample reason for concern upon discovering that a majority of Austrians (58 percent) said they believed something like the Holocaust could happen in other European countries today, while 31 percent believe something like the Holocaust could happen in Austria.

While all of this is troubling, it begs the question — what is the trend this study reflects?

In fact, all of the Holocaust awareness studies we’ve conducted thus far show that the further we stand from the Holocaust, the more history is distorted and rewritten. The study about Austria reveals both conflicted and troublesome perceptions about Austria’s Holocaust legacy. An overwhelming number of Austrians (68 percent) believe Austria was both a victim and a perpetrator of the Holocaust.

Yet, three-quarters (77 percent) of respondents say that Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany with either widespread support (32 percent) or inaction (45 percent) by the Austrian people. You can’t both be a victim of an assault at the same time you supported or stood idly by an attack.

History shows that hatred must be confronted wherever it rears its ugly head, less the menace metastasize; not just against Jews but against all who risk becoming victims of prejudice and intolerance. It is a clear danger signal that, in a country where the Holocaust actually took place and in which Mauthausen, one of the cruelest and most grotesque concentration camp complexes was located, Austrians believe while there is a broad consensus that antisemitism is prevalent in their country today, they also believe that neo-Nazism is more prevalent in the United States than in their own country.

A year has passed since the disturbing findings of our initial study regarding Holocaust knowledge and awareness in the United States engendered a call to action. So, where are we on Holocaust education in the United States? More than 70 percent of U.S. states have no mandate for Holocaust education. Now is the time; we must insist that lawmakers in all states introduce legislation for mandatory Holocaust education. The Holocaust began with words and quickly escalated to deeds — horrific deeds of an incomprehensible scale.

These last six months have seen two deadly synagogue shootings and according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the number of incidents last year remained at near-historic levels — 48 percent higher than the total for 2016 and 99 percent higher than in 2015; never before has Holocaust education been so needed.

We must look at what is happening at this time in the U.S. and globally as our call to action, to stand up to unchecked hatred whenever encountered and shut down intolerance wherever we see it not just to Jews, but to all minorities. This must happen in schools, online, in the media — we all play a role in remembering the atrocities of the past and ensuring it does not happen again, so it doesn’t become our future.

Greg Schneider is the executive vice president at the The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference).