‘It’s Not About History. It’s About The Future’: Holocaust Education Survey Shows Lack Of Knowledge Nationwide, In West Virginia
A report out last week suggests many younger Americans — including young West Virginians — have a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust. The findings of a survey on the matter come as a state commission to improve education on the atrocities of the Holocaust is seeing a revival.
The survey, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, analyzed Holocaust knowledge of people 18-39, identified as millennials and those from Generation Z.
The survey found that 63 percent of respondents across the nation did not know that six million Jews were murdered. And more than a third -- 36 percent -- thought that two million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
Additionally, although there were more than 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, nearly half of respondents were unable to name a single one.
Gideon Taylor, who serves as president of the group that commissioned the survey — also known as the Claims Conference — said the results are shocking. He also said such educational efforts are imperative to preventing similar atrocities.
“For us, Holocaust education is not about history. It's about the future,” Taylor said. “It's about understanding what happened and using those lessons for guiding us in how we go and live in our lives.”
The survey found that many young people are also exposed to a distortion of facts about the Holocaust on social media — or, even worse, content that pushes a false narrative that it never happened.
“As wonderful as social media can be, it also — as we know — can have very negative effects. And one of them is that it's given a platform to horrible neo-Nazi views of Holocaust denial. And that came out also in this in the study,” Taylor said.
The survey showed that 48 percent of respondents nationwide said that they had seen Holocaust denial or distortion on social media.
As fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain, the opportunity to hear from those who experienced the event becomes less available.
“To educate people about the Holocaust is so that people will know what racial hatred is and where racial hatred can lead to, what the ultimate conclusion of a program of racial hatred that went unchecked and led to the mass destruction — not only of the Jewish people, but of Roma and Sinti and other groups as well,” Taylor said.
The Claims Conference survey also found that 65 percent of West Virginians surveyed did not know 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Forty percent of those young West Virginians did not know what the concentration camp Auschiwitz was. Taylor noted that the state ranked 28th in its Holocaust knowledge score.
“West Virginia was somewhere around the middle, and it wasn't, you know, the top, wasn't at the bottom. But we don't need to look at this as the top or the bottom because this is a measure of information and knowledge,” Taylor explained. “But more it's a ‘What does it tell us for what we want to do?’”
West Virginia has not been immune to displays of anti-semitism. In December 2019, a photo of state corrections officer trainees surfaced that showed the class of cadets giving a Nazi salute. The photo sparked public outcry, but some in the Jewish community wondered if the gesture was intentionally offensive or made out of ignorance.
“We seem to be fighting two battles in America. One is woeful ignorance about basic history about things that have happened in the past. And I think the other battle that we're fighting with is [that] we have a rise in hate,” Rabbi Victor Urecki of Charleston’s B’nai Jacob Synagogue said.
Urecki was appointed in February to the state Commission on Holocaust Education, which has lain dormant for years. While the revival commission has yet to hold a formal meeting, Urecki says its return has proven necessary by recent events and surveys like the one from the Claims Conference.
“I think in light of the incident that occurred with the cadets at [corrections] — and also in light of the rise of white supremacists in our country — and then, again, with the follow up with the cadets, it seemed to be just a matter of woeful ignorance about things that should be basic in our country's knowledge of what has happened in the past,” Urecki said. “It seemed to highlight the need for [the West Virginia Commission on Holocaust Education’s] existence.”
Urecki and Taylor of the Claims Conference both said they are deeply concerned about the results of the survey. But Taylor says that, despite his group’s findings, he does see a silver lining. Many of those surveyed across the nation — and especially in West Virginia — reported that they think Holocaust education is important.
“On the one hand, you have the lack of knowledge, but you also have an overwhelming proportion — 84 percent — saying it's important to keep teaching about the Holocaust,” Taylor said. And I think that's the part we also need to focus on. There is a strong desire to learn more.”
Taylor said he encourages states to take a look at education policies. He says while mandates might be a way to get there, buy-in from school districts, teachers and state education agencies are key.
“I think that what is most important is a commitment — a sense from leadership of people engaged in education at the state and at the local level — that this is important. Important, not just because it's an item of history that people should know,” Taylor said. “It's important because Holocaust education sets the tone and gives a message and teaches lessons for what we want going forward.”
Officials with the West Virginia Department of Education, which oversees the state Commission on Holocaust Education, did not immediately respond to a request for more information on the revival of the workgroup.
At the West Virginia statehouse, recent efforts to mandate Holocaust education in public schools have failed.
House Education Vice Chairman Del. Josh Higginbotham, a Republican from Putnam County, announced last week he plans to reintroduce legislation that would require Holocaust education in public school cirriculum. A similar bill from Higginbotham failed to make it out of his committee during the 2020 legislative session.