Nearly Two-Thirds of Young American Adults Don’t Know Key Facts About Holocaust

A national survey released just a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah shows younger adults between the ages of 18 and 39 have a shocking lack of knowledge about the Holocaust.

The U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, the first-ever 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z, was released today by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference).

Nationally, there is a clear lack of awareness of key historical facts; 63 percent of all national survey respondents do not know that six million Jews were murdered and 36 percent thought that “two million or fewer Jews” were killed during the Holocaust. Additionally, although there were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, 48 percent of national survey respondents cannot name a single one.

In perhaps one of the most disturbing revelations of this survey, 11 percent of U.S. Millennial and Gen Z respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust.

The survey offered one positive finding nationally: 80 percent of respondents believe that Holocaust education is important, “in part, so that it does not happen again.”

State-by-state Holocaust “knowledge scores” were calculated by using the percentage of Millennials and Gen Z adults who met all three of the following criteria: 1) have “Definitively heard about the Holocaust,” 2) could name at least one concentration camp, death camp, or ghetto, and 3) knew that 6 million Jews were killed.

In Minnesota, a staggering 53 percent of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Over 1/3 of respondents couldn’t name a concentration camp, death camp, or ghetto. A quarter of respondents did not know what Auschwitz was.

Minnesota doesn’t have a state mandate that the Holocaust be taught in schools, but it is part of Minnesota’s state standards for social studies. Due to the broad nature of how standards are written, districts and teachers are left to decide the specifics of how topics are taught.

Young adults aren’t the only ones struggling to recall history. As I wrote here, U.S. 8th graders don’t know U.S. history that well, according to test results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). (Concerning academic proficiency isn’t limited to history either. Student performance in reading and mathematics is also in a sorry state.)

Why is knowledge of key historical events and the rudiments of American history rapidly becoming history? Is it because less classroom time is devoted to this subject compared to other subject areas? Or is it because instruction in general is getting blurred into politics and propaganda? According to Erika Sanzi, a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, it’s the latter.

There are important debates to be had about current events. There are pressing issues to grapple with in the lead up to the 2020 election. There are myths to debunk and theories to understand and challenge. But at a time when students’ knowledge of civics and how government works is stunningly bad, it is a dereliction of duty to peddle in politics in place of teaching the basics.

A teacher’s personal opinion about a particular Supreme Court nominee does not educate their students about the process of nominating and confirming someone to the highest court in the land—especially not when it’s being shared in math class. A teachers’s disdain for guns does not help students understand the different interpretations of the 2nd amendment and his or her opposition to school choice hardly contributes to a better understanding of the history of education in America.

If my child is going to walk in the door after school and say “the world is going to end in 12 years because of climate change” or that “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States,” I expect him to be able to tell me, in detail, what evidence he has for those claims. If he can’t substantively defend the assertions, I can only assume that he is being served a steady diet of propaganda during school hours.

And that is not ok.

In an informal survey the Center conducted of Minnesota parents’ views on education during the coronavirus, one parent stated that “COVID-19 peeled back the curtain of what is ‘really’ going on in the classrooms.” Teachers can “engage their students in robust study and debate without ever showing their own ideological hand,” Sanzi continues. “Sadly, fewer and fewer students are being granted the opportunity to learn about different perspectives, draw their own conclusions, and freely share them in school.”