BreakPoint: Forgetting the Holocaust

Inexcusable Ignorance of the Past

In the 1930s and 40s, six million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis. But amazingly, this would be news to many among us.

Just about the only unequivocal example of evil most Americans can agree on are the Nazis. It’s why what’s known as “Godwin’s Law” holds that the longer an online argument about some issue goes on, the more likely it is that someone is going to invoke Adolf Hitler: We all agree that being like Hitler is bad.

But as a disturbing new report suggests, an increasing percentage of Americans don’t really know why Hitler and his henchmen are considered to be evil incarnate.

A study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or “Claims Conference” for short, found that forty-one percent of all respondents, and two-thirds of millennials, could not correctly identify Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, 45 percent couldn’t name a single concentration camp.

Only half knew that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. One-third put the number murdered at two million or less. Even worse, “Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it.” Paradoxically, nearly three-in-five of those interviewed “believe the Holocaust could happen again and half think it could happen in the United States.” Given the overall level of ignorance about the Holocaust itself, it’s not clear what they’re basing their opinions on.

The head of the Claims Conference, Julius Berman, told the Times of Israel that, “We are alarmed that today’s generation lacks some of the basic knowledge about these atrocities.” The Conference’s vice-president added that “there remain troubling gaps in Holocaust awareness while survivors are still with us; imagine when there are no longer survivors here to tell their stories.”

What makes this report especially troubling is that there has been a rise in anti-Semitism both in the United States and, especially, abroad. While anti-Semitism is, in the words of historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, “The Devil That Never Dies,” it was, for a while at least, driven mostly underground by the Third Reich’s crimes against the Jews of Europe.

Now, to paraphrase the book of Exodus, a generation has arisen that knows not Auschwitz. On the left, criticism of Israeli policy, some of which is arguably warranted, has fostered alliances with loathsome anti-Semites, Hamas, and Holocaust deniersOne prominent left-wing British politician even called Hitler a “Zionist.”

I wish I were making that up.

On the right, ask any prominent Jewish commentator about how quickly his or her comment boxes fill up with anti-Semitic bile. Sometimes, you don’t even have to be Jewish: David French of the National Review, who is an Evangelical Christian, was subjected to pictures of his seven-year-old daughter in a gas chamber.

On a personal note, when my father was a teenager, German troops massacred thousands of their former Italian allies on his home island of Cephalonia in Greece.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Growing up, especially in the New York area, I can’t imagine that people could ever forget the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust, much less not know what Auschwitz is.

Well, it appears that people not only have forgotten the past, they never bothered to learn about it in the first place.

It’s an ignorance that leaves us, effectively, without a Devil, which makes it as dangerous as it is inexcusable.


Forgetting the Holocaust: Inexcusable Ignorance of the Past

The words often used by the Jewish people about the Holocaust, “lest we forget”, are as appropriate today as when they were first spoken. Eric encourages us not to be ignorant of our history so that we are less likely to repeat it. To read more about the study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, click on the link in our Resources section.


Holocaust study: Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is
  • Julie Zauzmer | Washington Post | April 12, 2018
Poll: Most Americans believe Holocaust could happen again
  • Sue Surkes | The Times of Israel | April 12, 2018

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  • Just One Voice

    You wrote about this just to make me confess didn’t you? 🙂 I admit, I’d have to google Auschwitz. I think I could’ve correctly identified the other stuff.

    History was my least favorite subject in my younger years. I guess I was just overwhelmed by the amount of varying information. I just stuck to learning the Bible 🙂

  • Jordan Smith

    My grandfather was a Ukrainian Deported Person (understand: slave) during WWII. He was processed in the work portion of the Auschwitz camp. He saw the lie above the gate (“Work Will Set You Free”)…

    How is it possible that a generation cannot know about this horrendous evil, especially in the information age? As a teacher, I would surely hope that this is a part of our curriculum!

    I will never forget, and as long as I tech, I will never let my students forget either.

  • Carol

    So, we know there is a problem with the millennials not knowing about the Holocaust, and that anti semitism is on the rise, but what do we do about it?

  • jason taylor

    The problem in principal is not preventing it happening again; it’s going to happen whether we like it or not. The important point is making sure that a victim cannot simply disappear. Those kind of folk can do a lot of things but one thing they cannot do is make him forgotten. It is not even the possibility of kinfolk doing a Sharansky. It is simply that being remembered makes you that much less a slave.

    • Misti Moser

      We can do better.

  • “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Sir Winston Churchill

  • gladys1071

    This is very sad and disturbing, i was taught about the holocaust in middle school, if anything it was engrained in us to not forget, my teachers were adamant about it, of course that was back in the 80’s early nineties.

    I wonder if history is really even being taught today, the Holocaust needs to be taught.

    • Scott

      “I wonder if history is really even being taught today”

      I know right?.. simply baffling!

      • gladys1071

        it sure is, I am a child of the 80’s, and it sure was a different time back then. One of the other casualites of our time is our freedom. People do not value freedom anymore, they value safety instead.

        Erasing history is very dangerous, and no longer valueing freedom is also dangerous.

        • Scott

          I asked my 15 year old son about this the other night and he seemed to know a little bit about the holocaust… I asked where he learned what he knew and he said it came from reading Ann Frank. I asked him if they taught about the holocaust in any of the history classes he’s had and he said “not really.” Tragic. He did not know the name Auschwitz either.

          I will make a point of filling that hole in his education.

          • gladys1071

            Yes, i learned it in middle school, one of my english teachers was very adamant and she showed us films, i read “the hiding place” about Corrie Ten boon and did a book report on it.

            I also enjoy history very much, so i have read a lot of history, and taken many history classes.

            My mom told me about it too when i was a child, she told me about Anne Franke.

  • Misti Moser

    One of my teachers, the late Professor and Architect, Diane Lewis, said, « Know the Devil in your time! » One may be tempted to self edit Goldhagen to say « hatred » is « The Devil that never dies. » (and there, unfortunately, may be truth in this, for a while anyway) BUT anti-Semitism is a particular problem that requires particular attention. Thank you for sharing your personal story re: your father’s eye witness of massacre in Cephalonia. Stories such as these must be uttered without ceasing to keep us from falling asleep.