Editor’s Note: Harry D. Wall is on the Board of Directors of the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights. He has long been involved in human rights activities, Jewish and other non-profit organizations. His reportage and videos are on Jewish Discoveries. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Ignorance about the Holocaust is growing, particularly among young people. In the United States, a 2018 survey showed that 66% of millennials could not identify what the Auschwitz concentration and death camp was.
A recent CNN poll in Europe revealed that about a third of the 7,000 European respondents across seven countries knew “just a little or nothing at all” about the Holocaust. In France, nearly 20% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust.
These studies paint a disquieting picture of widening gaps in the knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust with the passing years. The concern isn’t only that the Holocaust is fading from memory, it’s that the lessons that can be applied to the ongoing human rights abuses and threats to democracy are also being lost. Today, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and there is no better time to call for a renewed effort to educate young people about the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews.
As awareness of the Holocaust declines, we have witnessed, perhaps not coincidentally, a surge in anti-Semitic attacks. The FBI reported a 37% spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2017 compared to the previous year. In October, a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 worshipers in what was the deadliest attack against Jews in US history.
And in Europe, the very continent where six million Jews perished by Nazi genocide, it is alarming and appalling that anti-Semitism once again threatens Jewish communities.
An EU-commissioned poll in 2017 found that 28% percent of European Jews said they had been harassed that year.
Nearly 90% of European Jews, according to the same survey, believe anti-Semitism has worsened online in their respective countries over the last five years, and more than one in three are considering emigration.
In the face of growing anti-Semitism, there is a compelling need to teach the Holocaust in schools in the US and Europe. Holocaust education also serves a broader purpose, since it can provide a historical context to understand and prevent other atrocities. The Holocaust began with words, racial stereotyping and demonization – and that has also been the prelude to mass violence around the globe.
The Holocaust reduced social and economic pressures to simplistic responses, which blamed one segment of the population for national or social problems. It was not the first time in history that Jews have been singled out for blame and attack. The vilification of Judaism extends for two millennia. It’s important to note that contemporary fascists, racists and extremists employ similar tactics against other minorities.
Studying the Holocaust can provide a necessary understanding of how an entire population was bullied and manipulated by demagogues before succumbing to hate and fear-mongering. It can also serve as a blueprint for recognizing the dangers of demonization and incitement, and help guard human rights and strengthen core democratic values.
The Holocaust can also teach young people today how to confront bigotry through the stories of courageous individuals in Nazi-occupied Europe who stood up to the power of the mob and risked their lives to save Jews. There is much to be learned from examining the motivations and behavior of perpetuators and collaborators, as well as bystanders, protesters and heroes.
Several states in the United States, among them California, New York, and Illinois, mandate some form of Holocaust and genocide education.
Europe, Germany, the UK, and France are among the countries that require schools to teach the Holocaust. And 32 nations belong to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, established in 1998, which encourages education and research.
Too often, however, required education is treated as a perfunctory curriculum obligation, sandwiched in a lesson plan about World War II or modern European history.
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Notable as this is, more must be done. Education, including Holocaust studies, is only one of the important ways for societies to confront rising extremism, prejudice and hate. Outspoken leadership – in politics, media, and other sectors – is also essential.
Democracy is fragile, and human rights are easily weakened or demolished. What happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany is one of history’s worst atrocities. It certainly wasn’t the last of its kind, as witnessed in Srebrenica, Rwanda, and now Myanmar. Unless we learn the lessons of the past, no society or country is safe from the demons that lurk among us.