MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A new survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as Claims Conference, interviewed adults ages 18-39 by phone or online about their knowledge of the Holocaust and the prevalence of Holocaust denial. The study provided state rankings as well as national statistics.
According to the survey, most national respondents (56%) said they have personally seen Nazi symbols in their community and social media platforms they visit or have used in the past five years. Additionally, about a quarter (23%) of respondents said that either the Holocaust is a myth and didn’t happen, the Holocaust happened, the number of Jews who died in it has been greatly exaggerated, or they were unsure.
“I was really surprised because I don’t know those kids,” said Lisa DiBartolomeo, a WVU professor, “Admittedly, I teach very specialized classes–I teach a class on the Holocaust and European Literature and Film–but the students I have in all my classes, including the really big general education classes, they have heard of the Holocaust.”
“So, I have a hard time understanding where these numbers are coming from and who these people are, although I’ll have to say that the political situation and the rise of white supremacy more broadly in our society, as well as conspiracy theories, probably doesn’t help. So, when you have various public figures decrying the legitimacy of historical events, science in general, or the Holocaust in particular, I think you see more people publicly willing to doubt clear historical events such as the Holocaust, but I find it very troubling.”
Part of the data had to do with specific knowledge of the Holocaust and gauging what people know about facts. Out of the national survey respondents, 63% did not know that six million Jews were murdered, and 36% thought that two million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust. 48% couldn’t name any of the concentration camps.
Dr. Joshua Arthurs, a history professor at WVU, said one reason the numbers are so low on specific figures might be that the Holocaust is becoming a more distant history for the younger generation.
“If you approach it purely through the lens of the facts, it makes the Holocaust feel like just another boring history lesson. Like a bunch of black and white newsreels of things that happened a long time ago, and this doesn’t help us understand how the Holocaust happened,” explained Arthurs. “It allows us to believe that bad people did bad things a long time ago, and we can’t let those bad people do those things again. That it was a unique evil committed by a unique man, Hitler.”
“And it can also feed into a sense of taboo that while Nazism is evil, it was also for some people kinda cool and posting things online allows people to shock audiences. We saw something like this with the West Virginia Prison Cadets last year, right, who were doing the Nazi salute as a tribute to their drill sergeant, who was really tough. Those young people need to understand what Nazism was in-depth to understand what was wrong with that gesture. So, to me, I think the Holocaust education needs to be much more holistic than names and dates. It needs to be understanding that the Holocaust happened in a time and place not that much different from our own.”
DiBartolomeo suggested it might be hard for people to wrap their minds around the high number of deaths.
“But, I also think part of the importance of keeping in mind the facts and figures, and how many camps and ghettos existed, and the towns that people were deported from, and knowing the locations of the ghettos and killing fields–part of the importance of knowing that is simply being able to confront the people who deny the Holocaust,” explained DiBartolomeo, “so even though the mind boggles when you think of 6 million people if you let go of the fact that it’s six million people, it’s a lot easier to alight it or say, ‘Well, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It wasn’t that bad.’ No. It was. And it’s important to maintain that fact because that’s part of what Holocaust deniers try to do is to deny the facts or lessen the facts or detract from the figures to attribute them to some other cause along the way.”
The Claims Conference recently launched a digital campaign, #NoDenyingIt, asking Facebook to remove Holocaust denial content from the platform. The campaign includes videos from survivors who are speaking directly to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
West Virginia’s Statistics
While this survey might be a good overall look at what American millennials know, Director of Education Initiatives at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Gretchen Skidmore explained that it’s good to keep in mind that education is local, and statewide numbers could be deceiving.
“What we have to recognize is that these are statewide numbers, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t really good education happening in any particular school district,” said Skidmore. “If you have a committed community, a committed administrator, teachers who have the training, certainly time to teach it, if all those things are coming together, then Holocaust education can be very effective.”
West Virginia ranked a rather average 28th in Holocaust knowledge, and they tied for first in the top ten states that have heard of the Holocaust, with North Dakota. 11% of respondents from West Virginia said that it’s ok to hold Neo-Nazi views, but it’s actually lower than the national average (15%).
Interestingly enough, the adults targeted in the survey were more than likely students when the West Virginia Commission on Holocaust Education was active, as the oldest survey participants would have been 17 when the commission was created (1998). The youngest survey participants would have been 14 when the commission became dormant (2001). West Virginia State Senator Bob Beach said he was a part of the commission for 20 years.
“It was a very active organization from 2001-2014. A lot of education material in our schools. It’s focused on 8th grade is what it was. There was actually a textbook that goes along with it that teachers can use in the classroom. They would also do some outreach. Have poetry contests, readings, just competitions as it regards to writing, or maybe even artwork,” Beach explained, “And they would do something here in Morgantown at one of the local churches, not a synagogue but a church, where folks could come in and listen to the poetry or readings, whatever it may be. So it was very active across the state. Members were from all regions of the state of West Virginia. From the Northern Panhandle to Southern West Virginia.”
The commission was primarily created and lead by Dr. Edith Levy, who was a Holocaust survivor. In 2014, Levy stepped down for health reasons, and the commission became inactive. A handful of lawmakers, including Beach, have recently been working on getting the commission back up and running again.
“We were almost approaching the 1 year anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue mass killing. Dr. Levy’s son, Laurent, reached out to me and asked me if I could help try to get this up and running again,” Beach recalls, “Unfortunately, what happened was, being that it was 2014-2019, things had just set idle and appointments had not been made so it was determined that because appointments have not been made to update it and keep it active, the governor would have to go back in and start from scratch to make new appointments. That was a long and drawn out process—it really was. We were trying to get communications going with the Governor. We, unfortunately, kept stumbling and we couldn’t get him to respond to us. When we finally did, it actually took legislative action to get him to move forward.”
Beach said that though the commission has been inactive, teachers have still been using the handbook the commission created, so it has had some lasting impact. It’s essential, he said, for the commission to get the community involved again by using those community events.
“Not just in Morgantown but Charleston, Huntington, wherever it may be just to have communication and for this to be truly successful, we need to have dialogue within the community and the commission,” said Beach.
Regardless, this study, for some, is a call to teachers to re-think or deepen Holocaust education across the country. Officials we talked to in this story said ways to do that include using primary sources and teaching to emphasize people who experienced the Holocaust as individuals.
“I would hope that the results of the survey are a little bit of a wakeup call for educators–K-12 educators and college educators–to really think about what the curriculum focuses on, and are we doing the best we could do for our kids and for the future generations to teach them about the Holocaust. Because it’s kind of a truism at this point that if you don’t learn from history, you’re going to repeat it, and one could ague that we are repeating it right now with what we are seeing not only in our own country but across the world,” explained DiBartolomeo, “So I hope that it would be an opportunity for people to engage in a self reflection to see how they can do better even just as parents. Can I teach my kid something a little bit deeper, a little bit better?”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is an excellent place to find resources and information from people who lived through history. Though the museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus, virtual tours are available on their website.
“There’s a Holocaust encyclopedia. There’s all kinds of lesson plans. There’s survivor testimony. There’s a whole site where you can look at our collections and learn about our artifacts and we have music and videos and archival footage,” said Skidmore, “It’s visited by millions of people every year so there’s all kinds of directions you can go and there’s also updates on indicators of things that we’re concerned about today in terms of genocide prevention so just use the search function and see where it takes you.”