Survey of Young Vermonters Highlights Ignorance of the Holocaust | Live Culture

Survey of Young Vermonters Highlights Ignorance of the Holocaust


Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp - PHOTO COURTESY OF DREAMSTIME ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Photo courtesy of Dreamstime ©️ Seven Days
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
A significant number of Vermont adults under the age of 40 lack even a rudimentary knowledge of the Holocaust, according to the results of a newly released survey of members of the millennial and Gen Z generations in Vermont.

“The U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey,” found that a disturbing percentage of Vermonters couldn’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto, had no idea how many Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II, and believe that the Jews were responsible for their own genocide.

The 50-state survey of 11,000 adults nationwide, including 200 Vermonters, ages 18 to 39, exposes unsettling gaps in historical knowledge about the Holocaust. In Vermont, researchers found that:

• 35 percent of respondents didn’t know that the Holocaust occurred during World War II.
• 65 percent couldn’t say how many Jews were killed.
• 17 percent believed that the Holocaust occurred, but that the number of Jews murdered has been greatly exaggerated.
• 42 percent couldn’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto.

The Holocaust, the systematic extermination of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during the 1930s and ’40s, is considered one of the seminal historical events of the 20th century. Names of concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka have become synonymous with ethnic cleansing. The Holocaust so deeply ingrained in the cultural history of modern Europe that 17 nations have deemed its denial a crime.

The first-of-its-kind, 50-state survey was commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a nonprofit organization founded in 1951 to compensate Holocaust survivors worldwide. The results come as white nationalism and neo-Nazism are resurgent in the United States, and as displays of Nazi and white supremacist symbols have become more commonplace in the U.S.

Indeed, more than half of Vermonters surveyed said they had seen Nazi symbols in their own community and/or on social media platforms in the last five years.

Vermonters’ knowledge of Holocaust history fared only slightly better than the national average. For example, only 7 percent of Vermonters surveyed said they believe that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, compared to 11 percent of respondents nationally who believe that to be true. In New York, home to the country’s largest Jewish population, 19 percent of millennial and Gen Z respondents believe that Jews caused their own genocide.

“I am neither shocked nor surprised,” said Alan Steinweis, a professor of history and the Raul Hilberg distinguished professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont. “I think this is symptomatic of a broader problem, which is that Americans know very little about history, period.”

As Steinweis pointed out, history education generally has suffered tremendously in recent years. Since the 2008 financial crisis, colleges and universities have seen declining student enrollments in the liberal arts generally, and in history in particular.

But Steinweis, who’s taught Holocaust history for 34 years, also cautioned against reading too much into these survey results, either in Vermont or nationally. He noted, for example, that 42 percent of Vermonters surveyed were unable to identify a single concentration camp or Jewish ghetto.

“Just because someone can’t name a ghetto or concentration camp doesn’t mean they didn’t know there were ghettos and concentration camps where terrible things happened to Jews,” he said. “How many Americans can name a notorious plantation where large numbers of enslaved African Americans were kept?”

By no means is this survey the first to reveal Americans' widespread ignorance of government and civics. A 2019 survey, by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Steinweis noted, found that one in five Americans couldn’t name a single branch of government. Fusion's Massive Millennial Poll in 2015 revealed that 77 percent of millennials couldn’t name a U.S. senator from their own state.

Jonathan Huener, an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn and Leonard Miller Center for Holocaust Studies at UVM, was equally unsurprised by the survey’s result, though he still found them “frustrating.”

In his own experience teaching at UVM, Huener said, he has found the student body “rather well-informed and certainly expressing a strong interest in learning more about the Holocaust.” Enrollment in Holocaust courses has remained robust over the years. “And yet, the broader results of this survey remain disturbing,” he added.

Anecdotally, Huener hasn’t found today’s incoming UVM students less well-informed about the Holocaust than they were in the 1990s. That said, Huener noted that the Holocaust had a more significant role in American popular culture two decades ago than it does today, in part, due to the 1993 opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C.

That same year also saw the release of Schindler’s List, the historical drama about the life of German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews from Nazi persecution. Huener said that when he started teaching at UVM in 1996, the “overwhelming majority” of his students had seen the seven-time Academy Award-winning film — in many cases because it was shown in their high schools.

In fact, the survey found that, in Vermont, 64 percent of respondents believe that Holocaust education should be compulsory in school, and nearly eight in 10 said it’s important to teach the Holocaust so that it doesn’t happen again.

Both Huener and Steinweis struggled to interpret the differences in the state-to-state results. For example, in New York, nearly one in five survey respondents blamed the Jews for the Holocaust. But Steinweis cautioned against drawing facile conclusions about those findings.

As he explained, there is a theological belief among some Christian sects, and even among some ultra-Orthodox Jews, that the Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves — in the case of the Christians, for not accepting Christ as their savior; by ultra-Orthodox, as God’s punishment for Jews straying too far from the Torah.

“So, there are many possible explanations [for those results] other than that people subscribe to some neo-Nazi or white supremacist point of view,” he added.

It’s worth noting that New York is one of 15 states that require Holocaust education as part of their secondary school curricula, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Vermont is not among them.

Which is not to suggest that Vermont doesn’t have some excellent secondary-school curricula about the Holocaust, Steinweis added. Each year, UVM pays to send one high school teacher to Columbia University to study Holocaust education.

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