Disturbing gaps in Holocaust knowledge defy global pledge to 'never forget'

Wednesday marked the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” — when a violent anti-Jewish pogrom broke out across Germany and parts of Austria. The attacks killed more than 91 Jews, destroyed over 7,000 Jewish businesses and 260 synagogues, and resulted in 30,000 Jews being sent to Nazi concentration camps.

History remembers Kristallnacht as a prelude to the Holocaust, the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Communities around the world commemorate this night, and the horrific genocide that followed, in an effort to uphold the core pillars of the Holocaust: “Never forget” and “never again.”

Concerningly though, the findings of a recent survey among adults in the United Kingdom reveal the difficulty with ensuring that these pillars are upheld for generations to come. 

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The survey, which was conducted by our firm and commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, shows a concerning lack of awareness of key historical Holocaust facts among U.K. adults.

Foremost, a majority (52 percent) of U.K. respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 22 percent thought that two million or fewer Jews were killed. 

To be sure, this troubling lack of knowledge is not unique to adults in the United Kingdom. Across all five countries the Claims Conference has studied — the United States, France, Austria, Canada and now the United Kingdom — more than one-half of all respondents could not correctly identify that 6 million Jews were killed.

In the U.K., there is also little knowledge of concentration camps and ghettos other than Auschwitz-Birkenau, and one-in-three respondents (32 percent) were unable to name a single concentration camp or ghetto. Notably, though, an even greater number of U.S. respondents (45 percent) were unable to name a Nazi camp or ghetto.

Accordingly, U.K. respondents feel that the U.S. is in much worse shape with regard to current-day neo-Nazism. Thirty-nine percent believe there is a “great deal of” or “many” neo-Nazis in the United States today, compared to just 15 percent who say the same of the United Kingdom.

That being said, respondents in the United Kingdom recognize that Holocaust remembrance in their own country is falling woefully short. A majority of those surveyed (57 percent) believe that fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust today than they used to. And even more strikingly, 56 percent believe that something like the Holocaust could happen again today.

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The gap in Holocaust knowledge among U.K. adults also extends to the United Kingdom’s own connection — both good and bad — to Holocaust history.

On Kristallnacht, Jewish families realized they needed to take the heartbreaking step to get their children out of Europe. This led to the “Kindertransport,” which was an effort by British citizens to save the lives of approximately 10,000 Jewish children who were facing death in Nazi Germany. 

However, when asked about the “Kindertransport,” more than three-in-four U.K. adults (76 percent) could not correctly identify what the historic, heroic effort was. 

Most U.K. adults are also unaware of their government’s unwillingness to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany during the war. Sixty-seven percent of respondents wrongly believe that the U.K. government allowed “all” or “some” Jewish refugees — but in fact, the U.K. government largely shut the door to Jewish refugees when war broke out.

Our findings in the United Kingdom — taken together with the four other countries we have surveyed — are even more troubling in light of the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents and violence across Europe and North America.

How then can we protect the Diaspora Jewish community and preserve the memory of the Holocaust in order to ensure that it never happens again?

The answer is education. 

It is only through increased Holocaust education that we can begin to solve this problem of detachment from this part of history. This is the most important step we can take in order to ensure that the next generation is well-versed in the important details of this horrific genocide, especially as the number of living Holocaust survivors decreases.

To that end, our findings did provide a bit of encouragement. Eighty-three percent of respondents said that all students should learn about the Holocaust in school and 72 percent of respondents say that schools in the U.K. should be given more resources from the government to teach about the Holocaust.

Moreover, U.K. respondents overwhelmingly (88 percent) believe that it is important to continue to teach the Holocaust, in part so it does not happen again. Positively, at least three-quarters of the general populations in all five countries studied agree with this sentiment.

The implications of our data are clear: Governments, lawmakers and education thought leaders need to take action and push for comprehensive Holocaust education reform. 

Indeed, there is no more powerful tool than education if we are to uphold the promises of “never forget” and “never again.” 

Douglas E. Schoen and Carly Cooperman are pollsters and partners with the public opinion company Schoen Cooperman Research based in New York. They are co-authors of a forthcoming book, entitled “America: Unite or Die.”