Most Americans know what Holocaust was; don’t know 6 million Jews were killed
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Most Americans know what Holocaust was; don’t know 6 million Jews were killed

Major Pew survey finds fewer than half of US adults know how Hitler came to power, other Shoah-related specifics; situation is even worse among teens (but not young adults)

Portraits of Holocaust survivors are displayed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, as a vintage German train car, like those used to transport people to Auschwitz and other death camps, is lowered onto tracks outside the museum in New York, March 31, 2019. (AP/Richard Drew)
Portraits of Holocaust survivors are displayed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, as a vintage German train car, like those used to transport people to Auschwitz and other death camps, is lowered onto tracks outside the museum in New York, March 31, 2019. (AP/Richard Drew)

Most American adults possess a general understanding of the Holocaust, but many in the US do not know basic facts about the slaughter of Europe’s Jews by Nazi Germany, according to a major study released Wednesday.

The survey by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of American adults do not know that approximately six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust or that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler came to power via democratic elections.

However, the survey also found that an overwhelming majority of Americans adults, 84 percent, know that the Holocaust involved the deaths and persecution of Jews, in contrast with previous studies that found significantly fewer US adults with basic knowledge about the Holocaust.

“Overall, most US adults are familiar with some parts of the Holocaust, such as what it was, about when it happened, and what Nazi-created ghettos were. But they are less familiar with some other parts, such as how Hitler became chancellor of Germany and about how many Jews were killed,” said Becka Alper, the lead researcher on the survey, in an email.

According to the Pew study, which polled 10,971 US adults in February 2019, just 45% of US adults know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Twelve percent thought the toll was less than three million or more than 12 million. Another 29% did not know or answer, and 2% thought the number was less than 1 million.

A fragment of the former Warsaw Ghetto wall in Sienna 53 street that a regional official for preservation of historical sites wants put on a list of protected historical monuments, in Warsaw, Poland, on February 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The study also found just 43% of respondents knew that Hitler came to power by democratic means. Twenty-five percent thought he was installed in Berlin via a violent coup while the rest offered other explanations or did not know or answer.

At the same time, 69% of respondents knew that the Holocaust occurred sometimes between 1930 and 1950, and 63% correctly identified Nazi-created ghettos as parts of towns where Jews were forced to live.

Among teens the number who knew how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust was even lower, with just 38% answering that question correctly, according to a separate Pew survey of Americans aged 13-17 released in October.

That survey also found that just 33% of teens knew how Hitler came to power, while 53% and 57% were able to identify ghettos and when the Holocaust occurred, respectively.

The survey found that those who held warmer feelings toward Jews were slightly more likely to know how many Jews died or guess a higher number, while those who were less fond of Jews guessed lower numbers more often.

That trend also held true for other multiple-choice questions posed to respondents, though “the data suggests that relatively few people in this group express strongly negative feelings toward Jews,” Pew noted.

Matthew Rosca-Halmagean, 17, center, a student at Westchester Academy for International Studies, asks a question to Holocaust survivor William Morgan using an interactive virtual conversation exhibit at the the Holocaust Museum Houston Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, in Houston. (AP/David J. Phillip)

Only 24% of respondents were able to correctly answer all four multiple-choice questions, while another 24% were able to answer three out of four.

A total of 18% were unable to correctly answer any of the questions, though Pew noted that figure was “mainly because they say they are ‘not sure’ about the answers to the questions.”

Shrinking gaps

Several studies in the past have found even higher percentages of Americans lacking in knowledge about the Holocaust.

A study conducted for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in February 2018 found that 31% of American adults thought 2 million or fewer Jews died in the Holocaust. Among millennials, that figure jumped to 41%. The survey did not say how many got the number correct or what age group it defined as millennials.

A 2005 study by the American Jewish Committee found that only 33% of respondents knew that six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and a similar number was found in a 1993 survey by the AJC.

Senator John McCain, US Presidential candidate for the Republican Party, visits Hall of names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on March 18, 2008. ( Michal Fattal/ Flash90)

In 1985, a study published by Time found that just 69% of respondents could correctly identify what the Holocaust was. The 1993 AJC study found that only 54% of respondents could say that the Holocaust refers to the extermination of Jews and the Claims Conference survey from 2018 found that 11% of all adults and 21% of millennials did not know or were not sure what the Holocaust was.

The Pew survey found that only 3% of adults said they did not know what the Holocaust was, though another 10% declined to answer the question and 3% answered incorrectly. Eighty-four percent of respondents were able to correctly identify what the Holocaust was in general terms.

However, Alper cautioned against comparing results from different surveys not conducted with the same methodology.

“Since the surveys aren’t apples to apples, we can’t make comparison between them,” she said.

Whom you know matters

The survey was released just as the world is gearing up to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. On Thursday, Jerusalem is set to host a major commemoration, with some 50 world leaders or senior dignitaries from around the world in attendance.

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza speaks at a news conference prior to a students’ tour of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, January 15, 2020. (Ben Sales)

It also comes as officials in the US and elsewhere have raised alarm bells over a rise in anti-Semitic attitudes and attacks, with some policy-makers calling for increased Holocaust education to stop anti-Jewish hate and keep history from repeating itself.

In New York, which has seen a rash of attacks against visibly identifiable Jews in Brooklyn and elsewhere, a new pilot program is sending kids from areas with large ultra-Orthodox populations to the city’s Holocaust museum in Manhattan and offering free tickets to others.

“To ensure a safer and more welcoming future, we must teach our children about the destructive force of hate,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this month.

The Pew survey found that only 27% of adults had visited a Holocaust museum.

Those who did visit scored higher on the multiple-choice questions, answering 2.9 correct on average, as opposed to just two correct answers for those who have not been to a museum.

In this June 12, 2009 file photo, people line to enter the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Knowing a Jewish person provided an even bigger boost, from 1.5 correct answers to 2.6. Among those who do not know any Jews, only about three in 10 adults knew that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Overall, those with higher education did better, though even among respondents with college degrees, fewer than six in 10 knew how many Jews were killed.

As opposed to the Claims Conference survey, young people aged 18-29 answered the questions on par or better than other age groups except regarding when the Holocaust occurred, with only 59% correctly answering that question.

That age bracket did better than the full sample on questions regarding what ghettos were and how Hitler came to power.

Illustrative: In this September 20, 2013, photo, children and adults cross a street in front of a school bus in Borough Park, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York that is home to many ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. (AP/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Unsurprisingly, Jews were able to answer questions correctly more consistently than any other group, though agnostics and atheists scored almost as well.

The survey, which uses self-identification to determine religious affiliation, found that 86% of US adult Jews knew how many were killed in the Holocaust and what ghettos were and 90% knew when the Holocaust took place, though only 57% knew how Hitler took power.

Agnostics and atheists both showed high levels of knowledge about how Hitler came to power (70% and 76%, respectively) and more agnostics (87%) than Jews knew what ghettos were.

The survey of adults was conducted from February 4 to 19, 2019, with members of two online panels meant to reflect the demographic makeup of the US. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points, according to Pew.

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