By: Elizabeth Klein
Everybody remembers learning about the Holocaust in school. In eighth grade, we devoted more time talking to talking about the Holocaust than we did the rest of WWII. That same year, we read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl in language arts and discussed its context. In my sophomore English class, we spent weeks reading, annotating, and analyzing Night by Elie Wiesel. Most children in middle and high schools are taught the history of the Holocaust, but are they being taught the right way?
A recent study conducted by Claims Conference states that, while most Americans have a basic understanding of the tragedy, they do not know the essential details about how and why it occurred. 31% of Americans in the study stated that only 2 million or fewer Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust. 45% could not name one of the 40,000 ghettos or concentration camps of the Holocaust. Just 37% identified Poland as a country where the Holocaust occurred, yet 3.5 of the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust died there. 80% have never visited a Holocaust museum. 41% did not know what Auschwitz was. These numbers are even higher among millennials.
The study also found that 93% of Americans believe that all students should learn about the Holocaust in school, and 80% said it’s important to keep teaching the Holocaust so that it does not happen again.
There’s a disparity here. Americans claim that Holocaust education is valuable, but they do not know the most valuable parts of that education. Americans want to keep it from happening again, but they do not fully understand what actually happened. This isn’t about gradually forgetting information you learned in school; the study showed that millennials know less about the Holocaust than the average American. This is about how the Holocaust is taught. It isn’t enough for schools to teach this tragedy by generally discussing prejudice. Students need the specifics. The information that Americans have forgotten is possibly the most important information about the Holocaust. The reason remembrance is so important, the reason we say “Never Again” when it comes to the Holocaust is because we need to be able to recognize in today’s society the types of events that led its occurrence. If we cannot do that, if we cannot look for the symptoms of this tragedy reflected in our own society, how can we prevent it from occurring again?
Maybe the reason we are so misinformed about the details of the Holocaust is that society believes students, especially younger ones, are not mature enough to understand what happened and why. While it is a controversial and certainly sensitive topic, it is a topic that teachers and the educational system cannot make more general. Students need to know about these critical details about the Holocaust. They’re not too young to know the facts, and they’re not too young to understand. My parents took me and my sister to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum when we were ten and nine years old, respectively. My family had spent that entire morning in bustling Smithsonian museums filled with hundreds of loud, laughing people. The Holocaust Museum was almost silent. I remember passing by one of the walls and reading a quote from Martin Niemöller that I’ve never forgotten:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
I remember reading and rereading the quote, reciting it over and over under my breath. I didn’t know what a socialist or trade unionist was, but the part about Jewish people made perfect sense to me. That’s what my dad was, what my last name was, but not technically me. I saw myself as the person in the last sentence and tried my best to memorize it so that I would never forget to stand up for what was right. After everything I’d experienced at the Museum, I knew how important it was not to forget. I understood. My sister understood. And children everywhere will understand that learning about the Holocaust is essential to keeping it from happening again.
Maybe our problem is that we’re focusing on the wrong parts of the Holocaust. According to the Guardian, although most students are aware that “Jews were the primary victims,” they didn’t know how or why they were persecuted. Yehuda Bauer, honorary chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, said that “The Holocaust is too often turned into vague lessons of the danger of hatred or prejudice at the expense of really trying to understand the reasons and motivations for the genocide.” Are students taught the significance of Kristallnacht? Are they told about the international response to this tragedy? Are they aware that Hitler was democratically elected?
The only way to avoid repeating history is to remember it. Without knowing exactly what happened, we cannot prevent it from occurring again. That’s why it is the responsibility of Americans to educate themselves and be educated on the events of the Holocaust.
We need to do better by students, society, and the victims of the Holocaust—living and remembered—by widening the scope of Holocaust education to tell the full story. It’s not an easy thing to teach, and it’s not an easy thing to hear. But by limiting our information to the very basics, we are doing a great disservice to history.
Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist and Holocaust survivor, once said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”