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15% of young adults believe ‘the Holocaust is a myth and did not happen’ — or are unsure, survey finds

A lack of knowledge about the Holocaust in Illinois and the U.S. among millennials and Generation Z is a key finding in the first-ever state-by-state survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

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Visitors enter through the main gate with the inscription “Arbeit macht frei” (literally in English: “work makes (one) free”) at the entrance to the Auschwitz German Nazi death camp
Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

A new national survey, released days before Rosh Hashanah begins Friday, shows a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among younger adults in Illinois between the ages of 18 and 39: about a third didn’t know it was connected to World War II or are unsure about many crucial details.

When I grew up, people knew firsthand the reality of the Holocaust.

We saw a concentration camp number tattoo on an arm, testimony even if a survivor didn’t want to talk about the Holocaust. We knew the children and grandchildren of survivors who shared their family stories. Holocaust denial and ignorance of this singular, non-comparable event in human history was difficult to impossible.

This has changed over time and generations.

A lack of knowledge about the Holocaust in the U.S. is a central finding in the first-ever state-by-state survey, released Wednesday, by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The Claims Conference is the group with the responsibility to administer payments to Holocaust survivors with the money provided by Germany.

Gideon Taylor, the president of the Claims Conference said in a statement, “We need to understand why we aren’t doing better in educating a younger generation about the Holocaust and the lessons of the past. This needs to serve as a wake-up call to us all, and as a road map of where government officials need to act.”

Nationally, the survey found 63% of U.S. millennials and Generation Z do not know the Nazis killed six million Jews during the Holocaust.

The Pew Research Center pegs people born between 1981 and 1996 as millennials, defining the next generation, coming between 1997 and 2012, as Generation Z.

History dims with the passage of time. The national survey asked about Holocaust-era concentration and death camps and ghettos; only 48% of the respondents could name one.

In New York, with the largest Jewish population in the U.S., shockingly 19% of millennials and Generation Z respondents “feel the Jews caused the Holocaust,” compared to 8% of those surveyed in Illinois and 11% nationally.

IN ILLINOIS

Let’s look closer at Illinois.

The state of Illinois has been a pioneer in Holocaust education. However, results from the survey suggest the efforts need to be intensified.

Illinois was the first state in the nation to pass a law mandating teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides in all public elementary and high schools. Holocaust history was to be taught to students starting Jan. 1, 1990. The law was expanded to include other genocides in 2005.

“The studying of this material is a reaffirmation of the commitment of free peoples from all nations to never again permit the occurrence of another Holocaust and a recognition that crimes of genocide continue to be perpetrated across the globe as they have been in the past and to deter indifference to crimes against humanity and human suffering wherever they may occur,” the Illinois law states.

According to the survey, in Illinois, only 76% have “definitely” seen or heard the word Holocaust. The state of the world is such that 54% of the Illinois respondents agreed that “something like the Holocaust could happen again today.”

Some 80% agreed “it is important to continue teaching people about the Holocaust, in part so it doesn’t happen again.”

More Illinois findings:

* Only 67% associated the Holocaust with World War II.

* When asked the name of “any concentration camps, death camps, or ghettos you have heard of,” 16% had an incorrect response and 38% had none. Auschwitz by far was the most named.

* When asked, if “the Holocaust is a myth and did not happen,” 15% said they were not sure.

* 23% agreed that “people still talk too much about the Holocaust.”

* 53% have seen Holocaust denial or distortion “on social media or elsewhere online.”

* 17% said it is acceptable “for an individual to hold neo-Nazi views.”

* 62% said “in their opinion” there is anti-Semitism in the U.S.

THE HOLOCAUST DEFINED

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington defines the Holocaust as “the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims—six million were murdered; Gypsies, the handicapped and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.”

HOLOCAUST EDUCATION

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Director of Education Initiatives Gretchen Skidmore said in an interview when it comes to Holocaust education, “We are in a situation that’s constantly changing, and we have the opportunity here to certainly, always be thinking about new strategies.

“…This is a new generation; they’re getting knowledge in new ways they’re communicating in new ways.”

With fewer survivors and eyewitnesses remaining — nothing can replace a survivor talking about the Holocaust in-person — newer technology and digitalized artifacts can be effective, Skidmore said.

Kelley Szany, the vice president of education and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, said in an interview the survey shows that even with a mandate in Illinois, more education resources, teacher training and funding is needed.

“What I do take away from (the survey) is, I think definitely disturbing, the percentage of millennials and Gen Z’s in Illinois who have witnessed Holocaust denial and distortion via social media.

“I think that is showing us - kind of hand-in-hand - the alarming rise of hate speech, white nationalism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism that we’re seeing.”

Szany said, “What I was positively encouraged by was that 80% of the millennials and Gen Z’s believe that Holocaust education is important.”

GOV. PRITZKER, SEN. FEIGENHOLZ

The time seems ripe to bolster Holocaust education in Illinois.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his foundation have donated millions of dollars to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center; it’s a subject of great importance to him.

Sen. Sara Feigenholz, D-Chicago, was a key player in the 2011 creation of the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission. The law authorizing the commission expired last January.

Feigenholz wrote Pritzker on Feb. 20, asking him to reconstitute the commission, especially as the nation is “experiencing a significant rise in acts of hate and anti-Semitism.”

Plans to move forward slowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

Jose I. Sanchez Molina, a Pritzker spokesman, told the Chicago Sun-Times, “The Governor and the administration are committed to continuing the work of the Holocaust and Genocide Commission and are working to make it active again.

“As a part of those efforts, the administration is working alongside former members and stakeholders to best ensure the mission of Commission is accomplished going forward once active again.”

Feigenholz told the Sun-Times, “The renewed and reconstituted Holocaust and Genocide Commission must focus on framing the Holocaust so it engages young people. Illinois has a mandated curriculum to teach about the Holocaust, however, we can no longer treat it as a perfunctory curriculum or expect it to resonate with today’s generations.

“Holocaust education is a vehicle to link the atrocities of the past to the current rise in hate, prejudice and extremism that we are witnessing every day. It is the best tool we have to activate future generations and teach them how to identify and confront bigotry in all of its forms for a broader purpose through a historical lens.”

SURVEY METHODOLOGY

Schoen Cooperman Research conducted the poll. It consisted of 1,000 interviews nationwide and 200 interviews in each state with adults ages 18 to 39 between Feb. 26 and March 28. The margin of error is 3% for the national sample and 6.9% for Illinois.