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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Holocaust education in the United States is a disaster. Here’s how to fix it.

Last Friday marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s the global commemoration of the six million Jews and innumerable Roma, LGBTQ+ and disabled communities who were massacred by the Nazi regime. As part of my contribution to Holocaust remembrance, I participated in the #WeRemember campaign, a joint effort between World Jewish Congress and UNESCO. The initiative invites people and organizations across the world to remind us about the Holocaust and its implications today by posting a photo on social media with a sign stating “We Remember.” The effort was a huge success, leading to countless posts, video messages and physical displays throughout the world. The Jewish Club took part in the campaign, ensuring that Notre Dame had its place in Holocaust remembrance.

According to the United Nations resolution that established International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the overall purpose of Holocaust remembrance is twofold. First, reflecting on the Holocaust and learning about it helps to preserve the memory of the tragedy’s victims and survivors. Participating in campaigns like #WeRemember, listening to the testimony of survivors helps ensure that the Holocaust isn’t lost to history. Second, the act of remembrance helps inspire action towards preventing future atrocities. Understanding that prejudice, even when tolerated at a small level, can develop into group-targeted violence helps mitigate the possibility of horrible events like the Holocaust in the future. It’s the embodiment of the mantra “Never Again.”

The goals of Holocaust remembrance aren’t meant to be relegated to one day out of the year. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is certainly meaningful and noteworthy by emphasizing annually the importance of jointly reflecting on the Holocaust. But its true strength lies in the lessons and efforts that stem from the yearly commemoration. We cannot truly honor the victims and survivors without acknowledging the effects of the Holocaust today and the justice that its horrors call us to.

The root of Holocaust remembrance is education. Without understanding the Holocaust, the factors that led to it, and its legacy, there’s no way remembrance can truly take place. However, the state of Holocaust education in the United States is dismal. According to a soon-to-be-published survey conducted by American Jewish Committee (AJC), basic facts about the Holocaust are unknown to significant portions of the population. How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust? Only 53% of Americans know that it’s six million. How did Hitler come to power? Thirty-nine percent of American adults can tell you it was democratic, which points to a larger concern that Americans aren’t aware of how dangerous forces can manipulate our own democracy. Out of the basic questions on the Holocaust asked to respondents, only 26% answered all four correctly. 

American Jewish Committee’s survey confirms the troubling results found in a groundbreaking survey conducted in 2020. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, in the first-ever fifty-state survey on Holocaust knowledge, found a strikingly low number of young Americans know simple facts about the Holocaust. Seventy-eight percent have “definitely heard” about the Holocaust. Sixty-three percent of U.S. millennials and Gen Z didn’t know six million Jews were killed. When asked to name a concentration camp, death camp or ghetto (of which there are 40,000), 48% couldn’t name one. 

The Claims Conference ranked their findings by state, of which Wisconsin had the highest score of 42% on Holocaust knowledge. That means that even in the state with the most knowledgeable young Americans, 58% still didn’t know basic facts about one of the world’s most significant historical events. Only seven states cracked 30%. Our own state of Indiana has a remarkably low 27% and is tied for the 20th highest score in the nation. 

While the lack of adequate Holocaust knowledge is indicative of a larger failed education system, it also leads to fears about the dangers of that ignorance. Without that knowledge, we miss important insight on preventing future genocides and acts of hatred. It also leaves Americans susceptible to antisemitism. Inadequate Holocaust knowledge means that Americans may unwillingly engage in behavior they’re unaware perpetuates hatred towards Jews. The Holocaust was the culmination of tolerating antisemitism. Any further toleration of it invites further harm against the Jewish people, which is especially troubling as antisemitism has risen over recent years.

One factor contributing to this problem is that there isn’t comprehensive Holocaust education across the country. Out of the 50 states, only 21 require Holocaust education in secondary school. Even in states that do require it, it may be inadequately covered or students may not properly understand the significance of the event. If you’re a resident of a state that doesn’t require Holocaust education in school, I implore you to reach out to your state representatives and advocate for that mandate. If you do live in a state that requires it, tell your elected officials the Holocaust must be treated with the proper respect, not merely as a historical event. It has lasting effects on our world today. We should always be cognizant that an act like the Holocaust can happen again.

As members of a post-Holocaust world, especially one where there are less survivors every day, we must contend with the ramifications of one of humanity’s darkest moments.  We cannot allow antisemites and other bigots to deny the facts of the Holocaust. We shouldn’t let the memories of victims and survivors be forgotten. We must heed our ethical duty to act against injustice in pursuit of a world that is free from its horrors. That is true Holocaust remembrance, and it begins with education. Anything less is moral failure. 

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.