Museums and memorials have been erected, annual state and communal ceremonies have been held, and countless books, articles and films have been released to ensure that the world never forgets what was done to the Jewish people in the heart of modern-day, 20th-century Europe.
According to a poll of 2,000 people conducted by the UK Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, one in 20 British adults do not believe the Holocaust occurred and nearly half of all those questioned said they did not know how many Jews had been murdered. Some 20% of respondents said they thought that fewer than two million Jews had been killed while another 8% asserted that the scale of the Holocaust has been exaggerated.
In its report about the findings, The Guardian noted, “The scale of ignorance about the Holocaust has shocked experts.” Olivia Marks-Woldman of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust told the paper, “I must stress that I don’t think [the poll respondents] are active Holocaust deniers – people who deliberately propagate and disseminate vile distortions – but their ignorance means they are susceptible to myths and distortions.”
Indeed, how is it possible that in Britain, the land of Winston Churchill, who once described the murder of Jews at Auschwitz as “the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,” so many people can be so ignorant about what the Nazis did to the Jews?
Moreover, the Holocaust is a subject that is taught in British schools. A national commemoration was held in London this past Sunday on International Holocaust Remembrance Day with senior government officials taking part and numerous events were organized throughout the country as in years past.
Yet somehow, there are still sizable portions of British society that are oblivious to the unparalleled slaughter of Jews that took place.
No less worrisome is a survey conducted last month in France by the Ifop research group for the American Jewish Committee and two other organizations, which revealed that 10% of respondents had never heard of the Holocaust and 21% did not know when it had happened.
This, too, is simply difficult to fathom in light of France’s own sordid involvement in the Holocaust, when the collaborationist Vichy regime passed a series of antisemitic laws known as the Statute des Juifs in October 1940 and subsequently began to deport thousands of Jews. In the Vel d’Hiv roundup on July 16-17, 1942, French police arrested 13,000 Jews in just two days. Altogether, more than 75,000 French Jews were sent to death camps, where over 96% of them were murdered, including my grandmother’s first cousin and his wife.
Three French presidents, Jacques Chirac, Francois Hollande and the incumbent Emanuel Macron, have all acknowledged to one degree or another France’s responsibility for the persecution and deportation of Jews.
Nonetheless, as in Britain, a not insignificant number of citizens appear to be clueless in regard to the worst act of genocide committed by mankind.
These studies are in line with other, similar surveys in recent years that show a mounting and worrisome trend toward Holocaust ignorance, particularly among the younger generation.
In April 2018, a poll conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany found that 22% of American millennials said they either have not heard of the Holocaust or are not sure if they did, while an astonishing two-thirds did not know what Auschwitz was.
These figures were much higher than those among older Americans, indicating the existence of a generation gap in knowledge about the Holocaust.
It is difficult to ponder these statistics, as they appear to show that Holocaust education is failing to achieve its objectives as a growing number of people are simply uninformed. And as we all know, it is ignorance of the Holocaust which opens the door to its denial.
But not all is bleak and there is a silver lining to be found in the data. In the study conducted in the UK, 83% said that it was important to know about the Holocaust and more than three-quarters of those surveyed said that more must be done to educate people.
Similarly, the April 2018 survey among Americans revealed that 93% believed that all students should learn about the Holocaust in school.
This demonstrates that people are open to learning more and grasp that the Holocaust was a major historical event worthy of study. They are not hostile to the idea of Holocaust education nor do they minimize its value but rather seek to be more knowledgeable.
Our task now is to seize upon this openness and redouble our efforts to make sure that the horrors of the past are not lost with the passage of time.