The Importance of Holocaust Education
Updated: Jan 27
Over the last couple of years, studies have been conducted that reveal how little today's students know about the Holocaust. One of these studies by The Claims Conference, examined the knowledge base across five countries, including the United States. Here are some of their shocking discoveries as reported in the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey.
Among American Millennials and Generation Z:
63% of all respondents do not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust
36% thought that "two million or fewer Jews" were killed during the Holocaust
48% cannot name a single concentration camp or ghetto (although there were more than 40,000)
11% believe Jews caused the Holocaust
49% have seen Holocaust denial or distortion on social media or online
80% of the respondents believe it is important to teach about the Holocaust so that it does not happen again.
The results of this study sent shockwaves around the world when it was released in 2020. Those of us who are in various fields that deal with the Holocaust were sadly not too surprised by the survey. It just put actual numbers to the assumptions and gut feelings we've had for years.
Yes. Holocaust education should be a part of every school curriculum around the world. There should be multiple sessions on it at different periods of a student's learning career. The older they get, the more they can understand. It's not a "one and done" lesson.
But, we can't wait for school systems to catch up with the need. And we don't have to be a child or young adult to invest time in Holocaust education. We can each learn on our own. I recently realized how far I've come in my own education and most of it came through either personal study or through my time with The Matzevah Foundation.
A few years ago, I found a journal I kept in a "Voices of the Holocaust" class I took at my university. Our professor saw the importance of students having an outlet to process their thoughts and feelings after each class. Our twice weekly lectures were always heavy; full of heartbreaking stats, facts that seemed too gruesome to be believed, and stories of those who lived through the Holocaust that left us in awe. Part of our weekly assignment was to journal after each lecture.
I read back through my writings last week. While I came to the class with a basic knowledge of the Holocaust, I realized I only knew enough to skim the surface. My journal entries are full of stats and the initial thoughts I had to things that now, more than two decades later, I know by heart. I saw my initial horror at what the Holocaust really was and my shock over how it came to that climax of hate, death, and destruction.
As I read my entries, I realized how simple and basic my thoughts were back then. And that's good! It shows that I was willing to start somewhere. To have an open mind and heart to want to understand what happened to the millions of Jews, Gypsies, prisoners, and others who died during the Holocaust. I wanted to know how average people were caught up in a hatred and fear of their fellow man that led them to want to cleanse the world of these "undesirables."
In one entry, I wrote "Someday I would like to go to Poland." My professor wrote back, "Yes, you have your whole life ahead of you." Little did I know how nine years later that would become a reality when I went to Poland for the first of what would become eleven times (and once to Ukraine)... and counting.
Restoring Jewish cemeteries is what brought me to Poland initially. What keeps me coming back is the continued on the ground work we do in preserving cemeteries but it's become more than that. It's about the people I've met who work alongside us. We share our stories, what brought us to Poland, why we see it's important to care for Jewish cemeteries, and so much more. There's a lot of laughter shared as we work and live together. There are also shared tears when we ponder together the magnitude of the Shoah.
My Holocaust education has grown exponentially from those days of my university journal. I believe I am a richer person for knowing some of the names, the faces, and the lives that were lost in the Shoah. Every time I read about a person who endured those hard days, I am remembering them. Someone somewhere on the other side of the world in 2021 is remembering that they lived. That they were a beloved family member. Contributed to their friends, village, and culture. Their lives were not wiped from the earth as the perpetrators tried to do. I am remembering them.
Today, I have multiple journals and notebooks filled with observations, learnings, and reflections that have come from my travels, work in Poland, courses I've taken, and movies I have watched. I've come a long way from that half filled little blue spiral notebook.
I challenge you on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day to think of what you can do to learn more. Read a book. View an online exhibit from Yad Vashem or the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum. Watch a film. Take a class. Talk with others. Ask your older family members what they remember about the war. Every moment you spend in learning will bring you a greater awareness of our past so we can work to not repeat these same horrors tomorrow.
We each have a roll to play. We each can remember.
- Rachel McRae, Director of Communications for The Matzevah Foundation