Why so many Americans know little about the history of the Holocaust (2023)

International Holocaust Remembrance Day comes at a moment when there is growing worry about antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world. There's also been concern that too many people don't know enough about what happened during the Holocaust. John Yang reports.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    This is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And it comes at a moment when there is a growing worry about antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world.

    There's also been concern that too many people don't know enough about what happened during the Holocaust.

    John Yang looks at those concerns, starting with some of the ceremonies around the world.

  • John Yang:

    At the site of one of the worst atrocities in human history, a call to never forget. Survivors and mourners gathered at Auschwitz for prayer and reflection.

    Today marks 78 years since Soviet troops liberated the Nazis' biggest death camp in the final months of World War II. This was the last stop for more than 1.1 million people, most of them Jewish. Among the attendees, Douglas Emhoff, who is Jewish, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. He passed through the camp's notorious ironclad entrance bearing the ominous words "Work makes you free," and paused at the death wall where thousands were executed.

    Just a few hundred miles away, in Kyiv, a conflict on the minds of many. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, placed a candle at a memorial.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    Today, we emphasize even stronger than before and never again to hatred, never again to indifference.

  • John Yang:

    For the Auschwitz Museum director, Piotr Cywiński, comparison was clear.

  • Piotr Cywiński, Director, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (through translator):

    Similar sick megalomania, similar lust for power, and similar sounding myths about uniqueness, greatness, primacy, only written in Russian.

  • John Yang:

    On a day to mark past mass suffering, growing concerns about what's happening now.

    Despite the pledge to never forget, never again, there are signs that Americans' knowledge about the Holocaust may be wanting. A new survey for the American Jewish Committee found that only 26 percent of those questioned could correctly answer four questions about the magnitude of the Holocaust and its origins. Only 53 percent of those over 18 could correctly answer that about six million Jews were killed. And 34 percent said Hitler came to power by violently overthrowing the German government.

    In fact, he was democratically elected, an answer that only 39 percent were able to give.

    Holly Huffnagle is the American Jewish Committee's U.S. director for combating antisemitism. She previously was a State Department policy adviser on the issue.

    Holly, what do you take away or what do those numbers in that — in your survey tell you?

  • Holly Huffnagle, American Jewish Committee:

    So, John, I will even take a step back and tell you why we ask those questions.

    So, American Jewish Committee, we have been doing studies on American Jews and the U.S. general public for the past few years on the state of antisemitism in America, how Jews are experiencing antisemitism, if the general public's even aware.

    And, this year, for the first time, we put in questions about the Holocaust to the general public to see what they knew and if what they knew corresponded to how they answered questions about antisemitism.

  • John Yang:

    And what did you find? Is there a link between knowledge of the Holocaust and antisemitic views?

  • Holly Huffnagle:

    There is. And while the report itself will be released in the coming weeks, I can share a few things with you now.

    So, we found that Americans who answered three or more of the four questions, or three or four of the questions correctly, so they knew something about the Holocaust, they were more likely to know what antisemitism is, to know that it has increased in our country in the past five years, and to say that it's a problem in the United States, which is not something that those who answered less of those questions correctly were able to do.

  • John Yang:

    What do you think accounts for this knowledge or lack of knowledge about the Holocaust that the survey found?

  • Holly Huffnagle:

    I think there's a few unfortunate issues right that we're working with right now. And Holocaust knowledge questions are being asked by many different communities around the world.

    In fact, the Claims Conference just came out with one on the Netherlands this week showing just how many people in the Netherlands, young people, think the Holocaust was a myth. And so what we're up against is, one, the passage of time. So, today marks the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland. So time is working against us.

    And many of the survivors, we probably only within the next decade will have actual eyewitnesses to that atrocity with us. The second thing is, there are more genocides and more atrocities that have happened since the Holocaust. Unfortunately, never again, it has been again and again.

    And some people might not connect the reality of needing to learn those lessons from the Holocaust, needing to know that Hitler was democratically brought to power and how that can apply today. And so they don't make those connections.

    And I think the third and final piece is this younger generation, which we do know knows less about what happened, has grown up on social media, has grown up on the Internet, where, unfortunately, that's where we see the most Holocaust denial, Holocaust distortion and antisemitism today.

  • John Yang:

    How should Holocaust education or the teaching of the Holocaust be improved?

  • Holly Huffnagle:

    So, we're seeing some improvements even right now, as we speak.

    There was a bill that was — it's going through Congress right now on encouraging states to mandate Holocaust education. Right now, only 20 U.S. states mandate Holocaust education. And several others have commissions. There's a total about 39 U.S. states that are doing something related to ensuring that the Holocaust is taught in schools.

    But more can be done. More resources can be provided for teachers, including training on how to teach the Holocaust, age-appropriate materials. But then I think the venue that we're entering now is, how do we be innovative with teaching the Holocaust? How do we ensure that it's not just a history book, but it can be a survivor in three dimensions, which the USC Shoah Foundation is doing right now, speaking to survivors who might not be with us anymore?

    But their testimonies live on. Or virtual reality, where you have Holocaust survivors taking people from their own homes, the United States, to concentration camps and sites of the Holocaust and exposing them this way in more innovative, technologically advanced ways.

  • John Yang:

    They're — in the tape, we heard the director of the museum at Auschwitz compare the Holocaust with what's going on now in Ukraine.

    Is that a fair comparison?

  • Holly Huffnagle:

    We always are careful with Holocaust comparisons.

    But what I can say, John, is that what happened in Ukraine, the illegal invasion by Russia, there was Holocaust distortion happening from the very beginning, when Russian leaders said they were going into Ukraine to denazify it. That is completely inappropriate. It is an attack on Jewish memory and identity.

    It lessens what Hitler did. And so you can see some of those comparisons now. And that's why it's so important for the rest of the world to call that out and say, don't say this, this can't happen, and speak out against it.

  • John Yang:

    Holly Huffnagle of the American Jewish Committee, thank you very much.

  • Holly Huffnagle:

    Thank you, John.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And if you're looking for ways to learn more about the history of the Holocaust, this week, our very own Judy Woodruff and Fred de Sam Lazaro were part of a discussion on how antisemitism spread leading up to the Holocaust and the relevance of those circumstances today.

    You can watch that online at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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