Eighth grade students from St. Joseph School in Cold Springs, Ky., touch a relief image created with bullet casings at the Holocaust & Humanity Center inside the Cincinnati Museum Center in Cincinnati on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Photo: Sam Greene/The Enquirer)
A survey released earlier this month found that 80% of millennial respondents believe it is important to continue teaching about the Holocaust.
While this aspect of the survey reflects a willingness and commitment to learn from the past on the part of millennials, the general public and media chose to focus on different aspects of the survey – like the fact that almost two-thirds of millennials and Gen Zers do not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and almost half do not know the name of any concentration camp.
Social media erupted with comments calling young Americans’ lack of knowledge, “stunning,” “disappointing,” and “a shameful example of how ignorant and insensitive Americans have become.”
The survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, compounded by recent incidents of Holocaust denial on Facebook and the trivialization of survivors on Tik Tok, paints a depressing picture. Will our younger generations fail to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust are remembered in the decades to come?
As the chief executive officer of the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, I feel – like so many others – the deep and sobering concern that our country is teetering toward a state where antisemitism and hate-crime incidents are widely tolerated. While these types of surveys and the lack of Holocaust knowledge should be cause for concern, I believe wholeheartedly that young people want to learn from the past and create a better future.
I have been doing this work for more than 15 years and, as the Holocaust & Humanity Center prepares to commemorate its 20th anniversary later this month, here is what I know: The lessons of one of the darkest chapters of humanity are not lost on young Americans.
Another survey, published just two weeks ago by Echoes & Reflections, found that college students who learned about the Holocaust in high school reported a greater willingness to challenge intolerant behavior in others and showed higher critical thinking skills and a greater sense of social responsibility and civic efficacy.
We know this to be true locally. Throughout the years, I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of area educators who share compelling stories about the impact of Holocaust education on their students. And while foot traffic in the museum is understandably down due to the pandemic, what excites me most is a visitor trend – groups of teens are coming through the museum with their friends without a parent or teacher guiding them to do so.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we transitioned our in-person Holocaust Speaker Series to Zoom. Local survivors and their families tell their personal stories every Wednesday to attendees located across the city, country and even the world.
Ninety-two percent of surveyed attendees said they feel a responsibility to stand up to hate and antisemitism after watching one of our programs. We know that sharing the lessons of the Holocaust can change hearts and minds – even those who are susceptible to fringe beliefs spread by white supremacist groups. After one of our webinars featuring a local survivor, an attendee messaged me and said: “I actually had doubts that the Holocaust happened because of other readings. Now, I know.”
Alarmist reports highlighting the flaws in our education system do not address the issues we face, and those reports downplay the important work that educators are already doing. Even in the past six months, I have been inspired by the local students and teachers who have remained committed to our mission despite the challenging circumstances we are living through today.
There is work to do, but Holocaust education is effective and young people believe it is important. It is up to all of us to ensure the next generation learns from the lessons of the past. While we need to encourage school systems to include Holocaust education within their curriculums, we can also take personal ownership over our own learning experiences. Locally, you and your family have the resources to learn about this history – spend an afternoon immersing yourself in the stories of local survivors at our museum at Union Terminal or attend one of our online programs about the Holocaust.
Before her passing, local Holocaust survivor Lusia Hornstein said, “I owe it to all those who did not survive to tell the story.” We owe it to Lusia to carry these stories forward and ensure that future generations do the same.
Sarah L. Weiss is chief executive officer of the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center.
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