Growing up as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I was consistently exposed to stories about the horrifying genocide of the 1940s.
I recall clearly how, aged seven, I was told by my grandma about her traumatic experience of being transported to Auschwitz on a cattle truck. A hundred or so people, she remembered, were crammed into the back of a cattle truck without food or water and only a bucket to relieve themselves in. People died on that journey and many more perished upon arrival. Once at the concentration camp, my grandma was the only one in her family to survive.
Hearing these stories at a young age was upsetting. It was also incredibly hard to comprehend how something so heinous had happened to members of my family.
But, it was important that I heard these stories, no matter how upsetting. And it’s vital that every young person learns these stories so that we’re not doomed to see another tragedy such as this.
It’s not hard then to imagine my disgust and frustration to wake up to a survey showing that the majority of young Americans have very little basic information about the Holocaust.
In this survey of 1,000 millennial and Gen Z American adults aged between 18 and 39, 63 per cent of respondents did not know 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Almost half couldn’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto from World War II.
Most significantly, a shocking 12 per cent hadn’t even heard of the Holocaust before.
I read this, dismayed, but not entirely shocked. As a Jewish person, I am all too aware of how frequently you come into contact with people who know nothing about the genocide or even outright deny it.
So what has caused such a devastating lapse of education in so many young Americans?
At first, my instinct was to blame the students. Perhaps they had no interest in history? Maybe they just viewed it as another page in the history books? I began to think that maybe, without a personal connection to the events, it seemed like just another obscure historical event to some kids.
I also considered whether misinformation had paid a major part. Almost half (49 per cent) had seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts online.
The more I read, however, the more it became clear that it’s more likely a failure on behalf of states and school districts.
Only 30 per cent of US states require Holocaust education to be on the school curriculum.
Out of 50 states, that’s only 15 who deem one of the worst human atrocities in modern history to be a necessary part of teaching.
In the states that do insist on it, like California, many students won’t learn a thing about it until they get to high school. Even then, some teachers rush through it in an attempt to finish the syllabus.
The students, however, are eager to learn about it. Kelsie, a history teacher in northern California, told me that students want to know about the Holocaust but aren’t afforded the opportunities to do so properly. She thinks the school districts are to blame for these astonishing numbers.
So many events in world history are ‘triggering’. Teachers try not to emotionally disrupt students.
Personally, I think getting emotional reactions to it is powerful but some school districts can be seen reprimanding their staff for upsetting students.
Unfortunately, in our line of work, you can do god’s work but the minute a parent complains about something, it’s their word and not ours.
Another teacher, Grace, also told me that often unwarranted concern about upsetting students and their parents gets in the way of teaching history. Often it’s easier for teachers to avoid confronting difficult subjects instead of potentially dealing with the wrath of problematic parents.
As somebody who was exposed to these stories from an extremely young age, it concerns me that fears of upsetting children are what could be preventing them from knowing about the Holocaust.
When I first heard about it all – with the added kick of a personal connection – I was devastated. But, the very purpose of discussing and teaching the Holocaust is to upset, disgust, enrage so as to ensure that the lessons from it are imprinted in our memories.
Once imprinted in our memories, we can muster up the strength to face fascism and tackle it head-on.
If it’s true that supposedly ‘woke’ young people aren’t being taught properly about the Holocaust because of fears that they might be upset, then I’ve got news for you: a future with no knowledge of the Holocaust is much more concerning