A Kristallnacht event held by the Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic Schools at Mercy High School in San Francisco, Nov. 2018. (Photo/Adrian Schrek)
A Kristallnacht event held by the Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Catholic Schools at Mercy High School in San Francisco, Nov. 2018. (Photo/Adrian Schrek)

A recent survey found young adults ignorant about the Holocaust — or did it?

A newly released survey that shows a significant deficit in knowledge about the Holocaust among American young adults produced flashy national headlines. “4 in 10 millennials don’t know 6 million Jews were killed in Holocaust,” said CBS News. “Two-thirds of millennials could not identify … what Auschwitz was.”

But a closer look at the data provides a more nuanced view that can help educators pinpoint where the knowledge is lacking and plan how to combat it with more robust and focused education.

“For my kids to mention names of concentration camps isn’t as important to me as them really understanding the dynamic,” said San Francisco public high school teacher Jennifer Banaszek, who won a grant last year for the Holocaust lessons she teaches every spring.

The study was commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a New York-based nonprofit that helps survivors or their descendants negotiate for compensation. The data, taken from a representative national sample of 1,350 young adults ages 18 to 39, was collected in late February and compiled by Schoen Cooperman Research. An accompanying report is titled “First-Ever 50-State Survey on Holocaust Knowledge of American Millennials and Gen Z Reveals Shocking Results.”

While many survey respondents had a grasp of what the Holocaust was and who was responsible, and a majority saw the Jews as victims, a concerning 12 percent — 17 percent in California — said the number who died in the Holocaust has been “greatly exaggerated,” and 20 percent said people talk about the Holocaust too much.

The results also showed high exposure to Holocaust denial and neo-Nazi imagery, especially through social media.

“Holocaust denial is one of the strongest forms of antisemitism today,” said Morgan Blum Schneider, director of the JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco.

The report, released by the Claims Conference, noted that “when asked how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust, 63 percent of Millennials and Gen Z did not know six million Jews were murdered.” The question was presented as multiple choice. Six million was the most popular response and the choice of 37 percent of respondents. Fifteen percent chose the answer 2 million, while 10 percent picked 20 million.

On the subject of Auschwitz, the question was open-ended (as opposed to multiple choice) and asked, “Can you name any concentration camps, death camps, or ghettos you have heard of?” More than one answer was allowed; 44 percent wrote “Auschwitz” and another 15 wrote other camp names; 36 percent said “not sure” or “no.”

UC Berkeley sociology professor Samuel Lucas says it’s hard to know what people are thinking when they answer questions. “Not sure” could indicate anything from ignorance to uncertainty to forgetfulness, as students often lose the facts they’ve learned in school.

“I was impressed with the 44 percent, too,” he said. “A lot of teaching is done [with] names and dates, names and dates. And they forget it the moment they leave the class because there’s no context.”

Lucas said some of the other responses are tricky to analyze because of how questions are framed. For example, one that respondents did poorly on was: “In which country or countries listed below did the Holocaust take place?”

The phrasing may have been perceived differently by respondents, he said. “Someone might say they think where it happened is the place where the death camps happened, other people could be thinking ‘places people were taken from.’”

Like Lucas, Banaszek thinks context is key. She teaches at Thurgood Marshall High School in San Francisco, where there are no Jewish-identified students, so she connects the story of the Holocaust to genocide and xenophobia in a larger sense. She understands why non-Jewish students wouldn’t necessarily get it right.

“Teenagers, especially,” she said. “Those numbers are horrid, but in terms of what they internalize, I’m not sure that’s the most important thing. The most important thing is why.”

Surveys of Americans regularly show a dramatic ignorance of many important facts and concepts. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania wrote in 2017 that only 26 percent of respondents in a survey it conducted could name all three branches of government. And a 2018 YouGov survey on behalf of a right-wing nonprofit led to headlines bemoaning the fact that only 11 percent of high school students could name the rights enumerated in the First Amendment.

In another open-ended question about who caused the Holocaust, 72 percent picked “Hitler,” 62 percent said “the Nazis” and 36 percent said “Germany”; 86 percent believed Jewish people were the victims of the Holocaust, with a large number also aware of the disabled, homosexual and Roma victims of the Nazis.

Ninety percent of all respondents — 92 percent in California — said they believed the Holocaust happened, and only 3 percent said they did not.

“I’d like it to be 100, but 90 is pretty good, if people are honest,” Lucas said.

And they aren’t always, he said. Lucas argued for care in interpreting that result, because questions on topics as heated as racism or antisemitism can be influenced by a bias known as “social desirability,” where respondents don’t want the interviewer to judge them.

“Social desirability is, essentially, ‘I don’t want to look bad to the person who is interviewing me,’ so there’s a softening of response,” he said.

That means Holocaust denial could be more widespread than the survey suggests. Moreover, even if accurate, the 1-in-10 figure could be very impactful, Lucas said. He said research has shown that one biased person in a group can make a huge difference. He gave an example from academia, where hiring committees have to come to a consensus on candidates. One person with antisemitic or racist views can effectively block a job-seeker.

“Ten percent of the people denying the Holocaust is a lot if you consider how our society is structured,” he said. “That’s how we should be thinking about these kinds of things.”

Data from a demographically representative sample (2 percent Jewish) was collected by phone and online interviews in each state. The Claims Conference also released state-by-state breakdowns: California numbers were a couple of points lower on general comprehension of the Holocaust compared with the national numbers. However, Californians scored higher on the question about the number killed in the Holocaust, with 41 percent correct.

The fact that the survey found gaps in Holocaust knowledge wasn’t a shock to Blum Schneider. “I wasn’t surprised, really,” she said. “I wish states were more informed.”

Forty-nine percent of respondents reported seeing Holocaust denial propaganda online, likely a reflection of the spread of hate speech on platforms across the internet. In California, 60 percent had seen swastikas or other Nazi imagery in person, online or both.

Banaszek said the swastika has become so pervasive that even students who didn’t know about the Holocaust were still familiar with it as a transgressive symbol.

“The interesting thing to me is I think all of the kids I’ve taught can identify a swastika, but they have no idea what it is,” she said.

Exposure to online hate concerns Blum Schneider. Without solid Holocaust education, young people “won’t be able to have a thoughtful analysis” of what they see online.

She said it makes the current discussion about the controversial California ethnic studies curriculum, which is in a draft form and open for comments until Sept. 30, even more pressing. “It needs to be inclusive of Jews,” she said.

For Daniel Perlstein of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, the survey raised questions about the kind of Holocaust education schools should offer, especially in light of pervasive online antisemitism.

“In an era of growing racism and antisemitism in the U.S., much of it fueled by the Trump administration and its allies, the question is not so much whether school Holocaust education has fostered democratic beliefs and values (the data in the survey is pretty clear that it has) but rather how to help students think about the ways the Holocaust is exceptional and the ways it intersects with other instances of racism and genocide,” he said in an email to J.

Banaszek said the Holocaust isn’t always taught properly in schools in part because of discomfort that teachers have with the material.

“For some reason, if you teach about the Holocaust you’re pro-Israel and anti-Palestine,” she said. “That’s the roadblock.”

But she’s teaching her own students — many of whom are immigrants and many of whom have seen trauma of their own — and making sure they understand not only what happened during the Holocaust, but why and how.

“They can’t believe that human beings actually did this,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.