Morgan Blum Schneider, director of the JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco, leads students in a workshop on the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism. (Photo/JFCS Holocaust Center)
Morgan Blum Schneider, director of the JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco, leads students in a workshop on the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism. (Photo/JFCS Holocaust Center)

Poll: Most Americans know about the Holocaust, but details are fuzzy

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According to a new poll, a good number of Americans don’t know how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

But the new survey, released Jan. 24 by the American Jewish Committee, is less disheartening than might appear at first.

When asked how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, 53% of respondents over 18 got it right, answering 6 million. About 13% said 3 million, 11% guessed more than 12 million, and 2% said 1 million. The remaining 20% said they didn’t know.

the poll results detailed in the previous paragraph of the article displayed as a bar graph
Responses to the AJC poll. (Graphic/Maya Mirsky)

The survey of 1,004 adults, 18 and older, was conducted by research firm SSRS in October 2022.

“While it is good news that many Americans got the right answers, at the same time, many Americans do not know about the Holocaust,” AJC’s Holly Huffnagle, U.S. director for combating antisemitism, told J. in an email. “And that is what we are focused on, because those who know more about the Holocaust are more likely to know what antisemitism is and that it is an increasing problem in the U.S.”

Americans in general perform dismally when asked about history. A 2018 poll by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, an organization focused on citizenship education, found that only 36% of those surveyed could have passed the U.S. citizenship test, which requires an applicant to answer 10 questions from a list of 100 and answer six correctly.

According to the poll, 60% of respondents didn’t know which countries the U.S. fought against in World War II. Some 72% were unsure of or incorrectly identified the 13 original states, while only 24% knew why the American colonists fought the British.

The AJC survey asked four questions, all multiple choice: the number of Jews killed, when the Holocaust happened, how Hitler came to power and what Auschwitz was.

Some 85% of the respondents accurately described Auschwitz as a concentration and death camp for Jews. Regarding when the Holocaust took place, 76% said it occurred between 1930 and 1950, while 10% were not sure. As for the rise of Hitler, 39% correctly said it happened through a democratic political process, but 34% said he came to power by violently overthrowing the German government (24% were not sure).

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The report noted that results were in line with education levels: “Broadly, those who have completed higher levels of education (some college, college graduates, or more) are more knowledgeable than those who have a high school education or less.”

Just over two years ago, a survey covering Holocaust awareness was released by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a New York-based nonprofit that helps survivors or their descendants negotiate for compensation.

The summary for that survey proclaimed 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.” However, 6 million was actually the most frequent answer to the multiple-choice question, chosen by 37% of respondents. Fifteen percent said 2 million, while 10% picked 20 million.

At the time, UC Berkeley sociology professor Samuel Lucas told J. that it’s hard to know what people are thinking when they answer such questions. “Not sure” could indicate ignorance, uncertainty or forgetfulness, as students often forget what they learned in school.

Morgan Blum Schneider, director of the JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco, said the new AJC report is in line with similar previous polls, but that it is hard to come to conclusions without more data.

While the AJC survey targeted adults, the Holocaust Center addresses ignorance at its roots, through K-12 education. The organization just received a $1.9 million grant from the state Legislature to set up the California Collaborative for Holocaust and Genocide Education; aiming to reach an estimated 700 teachers and 70,000 California students, the network will center not only on history lessons, but also on ways to promote empathy, understand antisemitism and have difficult conversations in the classroom.

“While of course learning historical facts is important, we also place a strong emphasis on how we’re inspiring our youth,” Schneider said.

She’s looking forward to an upcoming survey of California students, part of the mandate of the Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education launched by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021.

“The rest of the country is watching how California is doing things,” Schneider said.

The AJC report offers just a taste of a larger survey that the organization will release in March with more granular data.

“These findings call for a greater need for Holocaust education in every state and for various grade levels,” said Huffnagle. “More can be done. In some places, much more.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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