‘Never forget’ can’t apply to those who never even knew

Widespread Holocaust ignorance demands ramped up teaching with a focus on historical specifics, not moral platitudes

The Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
The Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

Last year, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) released the findings from a survey in the United States. Conducted by Schoen Consulting, the survey shed light on critical gaps both in awareness of basic historical facts and detailed knowledge of the Holocaust amongst American adults, particularly young adults. The Azrieli Foundation and the Claims Conference recently commissioned Schoen Consulting to conduct a similar study across Canada. The results were equally alarming, showing that there are serious gaps of basic Holocaust-related knowledge in Canada too.

For example, more than half (54%) of those surveyed did not know that six million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust. Nearly half of the respondents could not name a single camp or ghetto in Europe at the time of World War II. Less than half (43%) of Canadian adults could identify Poland as one of the countries in which the Holocaust took place.

Beyond North America, a recent survey done by CNN on Holocaust awareness in Europe revealed similar and concerning results, while a survey released in Britain just a few weeks ago showed that 1 in 20 questioned whether the Holocaust took place at all.

These surveys highlight emerging trends that we have been monitoring for many years, and the findings raise existential questions: How can we uphold the promise of “Never Forget” if people have already forgotten – or perhaps never knew – important details? What are the reasons for this lack of knowledge and what can we do about it?

[I]t’s a slippery slope when the Holocaust is used as an example of the need to prevent bullying in school.

Finding answers requires that we grapple with several major global challenges.

First, the memory of the Holocaust is at risk due to attempts to distort Holocaust history. There are those who claim that the figure of six million Jewish deaths is an exaggeration. There are also intentional efforts to restrict discussion around people’s direct or indirect complicity and collaboration with the crimes of the Holocaust.

Secondly, there is an increased tendency to universalise the lessons around the Holocaust without historical context. An uninformed discussion of the Holocaust that draws parallels with other genocides may do more harm than good. Each must be understood in its own specific historical, political, socioeconomic and geographical context.

Trivialising the Holocaust to prove a point is equally irresponsible. “Don’t be a bystander” is often a lesson students extrapolate from hearing a Holocaust survivor speak. But it’s a slippery slope when the Holocaust is used as an example of the need to prevent bullying in school. The systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews remains incomparable to bullying.

Finally, “Never Forget” is oft-repeated, but perhaps it is unrealistic to think that generations that didn’t live through the devastation, and may never meet a Holocaust survivor, will indeed “remember” an experience when there is no personal connection.

How do we counter these challenges? One word: Education. Holocaust education needs to shift and adapt to our new realities.

Working with partners in over 60 countries, Yad Vashem has found that while many educators are interested in teaching the Holocaust, they are nervous to approach it. In countries where the Holocaust cast a shadow, or where national history is bound up in a different tragedy, educators can find themselves torn as to how to present the history of the Holocaust in light of the national narrative.

In Canada and other countries further from Europe, many teachers are overwhelmed by the enormity of the topic and the daunting task of creating relevance for today’s students, for whom the events of the Holocaust seem as far away as the French Revolution. Yet, across the globe, appropriation of Holocaust imagery and language is often found in current political debate and in traditional and social media, and as such, understanding the nuances of this history is key.

This is also true in Israel, where the Holocaust remains ever-present across public discourse as an emotionally-charged tenet fixed in the memory of so many; yet, simultaneously, there is often a gap between awareness and knowledge with the balance between the two remaining fragile.

The recent survey indicates that education cannot occur in a vacuum limited to commemoration.

Beyond attending ceremonies and other forms of commemoration, students need to learn the facts about the Holocaust. Educators must be equipped to explain the world that was lost, examine pre- and post-events (including the “return to life” of survivors) and analyze the unprecedented historical dimensions of the Holocaust in an age-appropriate manner.

The stories told personally and intimately from the perspective of those who lived through the Holocaust can have an impact on readers that history texts do not. Focusing on survivor stories can create empathy and engage students. But this approach, which is embedded within both Yad Vashem and the Azrieli Foundation’s educational philosophy, must be combined with solid teaching about their specific historical, geographical, sociological and political contexts.

In contrast to other historical periods studied in schools, the Holocaust has emerged as a discourse in which memory and narrative have outpaced history. To address this, we need to start with teachers. Through increased professional development, we can empower teachers by expanding their knowledge, and in turn encourage them to take an historical approach grounded in first-person accounts.

Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we must work to shift the focus of our efforts. Remembrance is not enough. Reflection is not enough. We must ensure that the promise of “Never Forget” is upheld for generations to come through comprehensive education.

Dr. Naomi Azrieli is the Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation. Dr. Eyal Kaminka is the Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem and Lili Safra Chair for Holocaust Education. Both organizations are represented in their national delegations to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

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