October 23, 2019
by Peter Gorog
Headlines from the American media in April 2018 after a Holocaust-related survey was published:
“Holocaust study: Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is” (Washington Post, April 12, 2018)
“4 in 10 millennials don’t know 6 million Jews were killed in Holocaust, study shows” (CBS News, April 12, 2018)
“Holocaust Is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds” (New York Times, April 12, 2018)
“The Startling Statistics About People’s Holocaust Knowledge” (NPR, April 14, 2018)
“Why We’re Forgetting the Holocaust” (New York Post, April 15, 2018)
“Study Shows Americans are Forgetting about the Holocaust” (NBC News, April 12, 2018)
How is this possible in 2018 in the United States?
Being the father of six children, four of them millennials, it is inconceivable for me that this could be true only two generations after the Holocaust. Being a Holocaust survivor makes these headlines even more disheartening.
I grew up in Communist Hungary, and I was in the millennials’ age group in the ’60s and ’70s. Had they conducted such a survey then, I would have been part of this sad statistic. There were plenty of reasons for this ignorance, among them were the survivors’ reluctance to share their stories, and the Communist system’s unwillingness to face the responsibilities of the government’s complicity in the demise of approximately 600,000 Hungarian Jews. We were not taught in schools about this genocide, there were no books published, there were no memorials for the victims, no plays or movies that would have made us aware of what happened to six million Jews between 1933 and 1945 in Europe.
But this is 2018 and the country is the United States! We have the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, with over 45 million visitors (24 percent of them school children) since its opening in 1993. In 2018, 19.5 million visitors representing 238 countries and territories saw the Museum’s website, and as of 2017, the Museum’s YouTube channel has 6.5 million lifetime views. There are museums and memorials dedicated to the memory of the victims in nearly every major American city. There are yearly commemorations of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January and Yom Hashoah in the spring. As of 2017, there were eight states in the United States where the Holocaust is part of the mandatory school curriculum. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have social-studies standards that include the study of the Holocaust. There are hundreds of Holocaust memoirs and fictional stories, movies, and plays galore. And still two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is and four in ten millennials don’t know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
In spite of all of these efforts, here are just a few signs of how the ignorance revealed by the survey affects our country in general, and American Jews in particular. Sometimes, Jews are still killed for one—and only one—reason, because they are Jewish, such as in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on October 27, 2018. Antisemitism is on the rise. Israel is still threatened with annihilation by Iran and countless terrorist groups. Anti-Israel sentiment is fashionable at university campuses, among the political left, and on the far right. With the help of the internet, the voice of Holocaust denial is amplified many times over. Jewish stereotypes (money grabbing, world domination conspiracy theory, globalism, even controlling the weather) are alive and well. Those who studied history know well that similar events, beliefs, and opinions were among the precursors to the rise of the Nazis in Germany.
So why are these statistics concerning the Holocaust and the millennials particularly troubling? We have to remember that the Holocaust happened not only because of the Nazi government and their collaborators in Europe, but also because of the countless bystanders who did nothing when they saw discrimination, segregation, and finally the killing of their fellow citizens. Keep in mind these bystanders came from one of the best-educated populations in Europe. My worry for the millennials, and the generations that follow them, is that their ignorance and/or indifference could result in history repeating itself.
Working as a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also gives me opportunities to see a silver lining in spite of the stark survey numbers. On behalf of the Museum, I travel around the country telling my family’s experience during the Holocaust. I also have opportunities to talk to high school and college students who visit Washington, and the Museum is often the highlight of their trip. They listen intently and their questions show that they understand what happened during the Holocaust, and they are ready to stand up against discrimination. They are not going to be bystanders. After my presentations, I get many thank-you notes from students and teachers and the recurring motif is that they will remember forever (their word!) what happened to the six million Jews during the Holocaust and among them my family. I am always encouraged when I hear that these young people were inspired by what they heard and they would do their best to see that genocide will not happen again.
One of the greatest rewards for my volunteering for the Museum was when I received a note from a young girl who was inspired by the excerpts from my mother’s diary that I usually read during my presentations. She promised that she would start a diary right away, writing down what she had heard and how she felt after visiting the Museum. This eighth grader wanted her future grandchildren to know what the Holocaust was and how hard she plans to study and work to make sure that it will never happen again.
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