Holocaust Remembrance Day a reminder to improve awareness

Holocaust Remembrance Day a reminder to improve awareness
© Getty Images

Today, Jewish communities and individuals throughout the world commemorate Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, reflecting upon the six million Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. To better understand how we as Americans relate to the Holocaust today — what we know and what perceptions and misperceptions we hold — Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a group that negotiates for grants from the German government to protect survivors and support Holocaust education, commissioned our firm, Schoen Consulting, to conduct the first comprehensive study of Holocaust awareness and knowledge in the United States.

Our survey looked at general Holocaust awareness, which has been measured in a handful of studies conducted over the past few decades by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. On the surface, our results looked promising. General Holocaust awareness is virtually universal, with 89 percent of Americans saying they have definitely heard of the Holocaust, 94 percent of Americans aware that the Jews were the victims of the Holocaust, and 83 percent aware that Adolf Hitler was a key perpetrator responsible for carrying out the Holocaust.

But when we dig deeper into what people know about the Holocaust, we found that Americans, and millennials in particular, have low detailed knowledge of the Holocaust. Americans vastly underestimate the immensity of the Holocaust, and most are unable to identify any specific details about elements of the Holocaust, such as names of concentration camps and ghettos.

Nearly 31 percent of Americans believe that only two million or fewer Jewish people were murdered during the Holocaust. In actuality, the number of Jewish lives taken amounts to six million. And these knowledge gaps are more concentrated in some regions and communities of the United States than in others.

Indeed, Americans in the Midwest and the South are much more likely to underestimate the number of Jewish people massacred during this time period. Of those who live in the Midwest and the South, 35 percent and 34 percent, respectively, believe just two million or fewer Jews died in the Holocaust compared to 23 percent of those in the West and 24 percent of those in the Northeast.

Further, Americans are also unfamiliar with basic details of the Holocaust, such as specific names of concentration camps or ghettos. Troublingly, 45 percent of U.S. adults cannot identify one of the 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos where Holocaust victims were herded, labored and slaughtered. Again, we found knowledge divergences by locality. Fifty-six percent of Southern Americans and 49 percent of those in the Midwest could not name a concentration camp or ghetto versus 40 percent of Western Americans and those in the Northeast.

There is also considerable variance among sections of the United States when it comes to personal Holocaust experience. Southerners are overwhelmingly less likely to place a human face on those who have suffered in the Holocaust. Nearly three-quarters, or 74 percent, of Southerners do not know or know of a Holocaust survivor, while a majority, or 52 percent, of Northeasterners do.

While there are Holocaust museums and memorials throughout the United States, they tend to be located in cities. A such, it comes as no surprise that rural Americans are substantially less likely than those in suburban or urban areas to have visited a Holocaust educational institution. Ninety-five percent of rural Americans have never visited a Holocaust museum, compared with 70 percent of urban dwellers and 79 percent of those living in suburban areas.

Such regional differences underscore the inequality of Holocaust knowledge among Americans. According to our findings, the American populace senses growing detachment from the Holocaust. Indeed, 70 percent of U.S. adults say that fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to.

Despite these largely distressing findings, there are findings that are hopeful in terms of the future of Holocaust knowledge nationally. In particular, there is a strong desire for the enrichment of Holocaust education. There is near-unanimous agreement that Holocaust education should be compulsory. In fact, 93 percent of Americans believe that all students should learn about the Holocaust in school.

These findings are somewhat heartening and underscore a clear conclusion: We must strengthen and enhance Holocaust education in the United States, especially at the high school and collegiate levels. However, with no consistency in educating young people about the Holocaust — as only nine states require a measure of Holocaust education at all — it should come as no surprise that knowledge is so poor. In order to combat Holocaust ignorance, we need consistent Holocaust education in the United States, ideally, in the form of implementation a standardized curriculum for all students.

Today, in keeping with Yom HaShoah, we take the time to recollect and relate the stories of our grandparents and their parents to the younger generation. Going forward, it is vitally important that we take action by implementing Holocaust education programs in our schools so that we may preserve the memory of the millions lost. Only by teaching and reteaching this painful history can we ensure that the vital lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten.

Douglas E. Schoen (@DouglasESchoen) served as a pollster for President Clinton. A longtime political consultant, he is also a Fox News contributor and the author of 11 books, including “Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence.”

Arielle Confino is a senior vice president at Schoen Consulting.