Canadian millennials uneducated on Holocaust — and their elders’ response to it

A new survey finds that similar to the US, more than a fifth of young Canucks have never heard of the Shoah, but the lack of information doesn’t stop there

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor

Illustrative: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends the inauguration of the National Holocaust Memorial in Ottawa on September 27, 2017. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Illustrative: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends the inauguration of the National Holocaust Memorial in Ottawa on September 27, 2017. (Screen capture: YouTube)

A survey released Wednesday found that a majority of adults in Canada are uninformed or misinformed about the Holocaust, and that six out of 10 believe fewer people care about the Holocaust than used to.

The poll, presented to the public ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, gauged the knowledge of 1,100 Canadians, asking questions such as how many Jews they thought died in the Holocaust and whether they recognized names such as Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel. It was conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) in partnership with the Azrieli Foundation.

While there were some disparities, the survey largely paralleled a similar study conducted in the United States and released last April which found gaps in both basic historical facts and detailed knowledge of the Holocaust.

Millennials were also less likely than older respondents to possess even a rudimentary picture of the genocide.

Twenty-two percent of Canadian millennials had not heard of the Holocaust before, or were unsure whether they had heard of it.

Fifty-two percent of millennials were unable to name a single concentration camp or ghetto, though that number was only marginally higher than the 49% average among Canadians overall (In the US, 45% of respondents were unable to name a concentration camp or ghetto).

Nearly a quarter of Canadians – 23% – believed that 2 million Jews or less were killed in the Holocaust, while 24% were unsure.

Greg Schneider, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Claims Conference, Monday, November 13, 2017. (Arne Dedert/dpa via AP)

“We spend $500 million a year on welfare for Holocaust survivors to make sure that they live with dignity — that they have food, and medicine, and home care. But the most common concern I hear from survivors is about Holocaust education — ‘Who will carry the mantle of Holocaust education into the future?’” Claims Conference executive vice president Greg Schneider told The Times of Israel.

Azrieli Foundation CEO and chair, Naomi Azrieli, said she was “shocked and disappointed to see the Canadian results.”

“Clearly there are holes in our education system that must be filled, because as it stands now, we are not preparing the next generation to learn from the past,” she said.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the shortcomings of Holocaust education in Canada, 48% of respondents said that something similar to the Holocaust could happen in another Western democracy today.

In addition, 82% said that all students should learn about the Holocaust in school, with 85% saying that it is important to educate about the Holocaust so it doesn’t happen again.

Schneider said an additional study is currently being planned for Europe and there may be similar ones conducted in other locations in the future.

“I think this is a worldwide issue, not just a North American issue,” Schneider said. “And the survey is a call to action. The question is not will someone do it [promote Holocaust education]…we must do it. We must make sure that it happens.”

The Claims Conference allocates about 1% of their annual budget, or $9 million, to Holocaust education programs, Schneider said, but these programs are integral. Prominent among them, he said, is teacher training.

Between 2015 and 2017, the Claims Conference provided funding to train more than 102,000 teachers in 59 countries in how to properly conduct Holocaust study, Schneider said, noting how daunting it could be for classroom teachers to address the issue of genocide.

Besides being unaware of the details and scope of the Holocaust, many Canadians had a rosy view of both the past and present.

While 47% of Canadian respondents said there were a “great deal” or “many” neo-Nazis in the US, only 17% said that was true in their home country.

One-third believed that Canada had an open immigration policy for Jewish refugees fleeing Europe during WWII. In actuality, Canada had one of the worst records of any democracy, allowing 5,000 Jews safe haven during the Holocaust. After 1945, Canada allowed 2,000 Nazi war criminals to immigrate.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issues an official apology on behalf of the country for turning away the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany that arrived in Canada in 1939, at the House of Commons in Ottawa on November 7, 2018. (Screen Capture: YouTube)

This past November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology on behalf of Canada for “turning its back” on the 907 refugees aboard the infamous MS St. Louis in 1939. Over a quarter of those aboard would later be killed by the Nazis.

“While decades have passed since we turned our backs on Jewish refugees, time has by no means absolved Canada of its guilt or lessened the weight of our shame,” Trudeau said. “We used our laws to mask our anti-Semitism, our antipathy, our resentment. We are sorry for the callousness of Canada’s response. We are sorry for not apologizing sooner.”

Asked about Trudeau’s apology, Schneider was pragmatic.

“The apology is just a brief moment in history,” Schneider said. “I think it’s too short-sighted as far as what’s important about this survey. For the Jewish people, this is about the memory of the Holocaust and how we ensure that those who were murdered are remembered in an era without Holocaust survivors. And for the greater society, it’s about ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are understood and have an impact.”

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