Both young teachers and their students do not know Holocaust facts
As we commence yet another school year, the Holocaust, the subject that once monopolized the Jewish day school experience, needs to be rejuvenated to reach young teachers and their students. Holocaust education dominated the Jewish day school curriculum in the seventies through the nineties. However, looking through the articles in the Journal of Jewish Education, one can see the limited number of research articles scholars produce. However, some recent monographs are updating how we teach the Holocaust to a generation so far removed from the time, with very few survivors left to recount their personal stories, humanizing what happened during the Holocaust rather than just being a distant history. With anti-Semitism incidents at all-time highs in North America, it is even more troubling that Millennials and Gen-Z know less about the Holocaust than any previous generation, and social media distorts the facts. The next generations of teachers need to know the history and give historical context in any discipline they teach about the Holocaust to ensure the upcoming generations continue to know the facts and realities about the worst atrocity in Jewish history.
The International Claims Conference’s 2018 survey revealed that only one-fifth of Millennials know about the Holocaust, while 70 percent of Americans believe fewer people care about the Holocaust today, raising alarm among Holocaust educators. The conference conducted another survey in 2020, with even more troubling results. In the US, too many Millennial and Gen Z Americans are unaware of “key historical facts.” The results show that 63 percent do not realize six million Jews died, while 36 percent believe two million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Nearly half—48 percent of Americans cannot name one of the 400,000 camps and ghettos during the Holocaust. The situation is worse in individual states, and particularly surprising is New York, where 58 percent cannot name a camp or ghetto. Considering New York has the country’s largest Jewish population, it fares poorly in other questions. The most disturbing result is that 11 percent of US Millennial and Gen Z respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust.
The TikTok generation is the least knowledgeable about the Holocaust, and that is the greatest challenge for teaching Gen-Z, especially since most new teachers are Millenials, whose knowledge about the Holocaust is equally concerning. The platform distributes false distortions, with 16 percent of contention distorting or denying the Holocaust. In 2022, the United Nations report found that 17% of Holocaust-related content on TikTok, 1 in 5 Holocaust-related Twitter posts, and 49% of Holocaust-related content on Telegram either denied or distorted Holocaust history and facts. According to the conference’s survey, social media has been the most problematic source for youth getting information about the Holocaust. Nearly half, 49 percent, “have seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.” While 30 percent have “seen Nazi symbols on social media platforms.” The more significant problem is that these platforms do not want to remove reported content.
Some of the last survivors are taking to TikTok to try to reach this generation, telling their stories on the platform to reach the generation that knows the least. Last fall, NBC News profiled 98-year-old Auschwitz survivor Lily Ebert, who has 1.9 million followers, and her great-grandson used the platform to discuss her number tattoo from the camp. Influencers and survivors’ younger family members are using social media to educate their followers about the Holocaust; with the number of living survivors decreasing quickly, family members are preserving firsthand testimonies for a new generation and posting them on the social media platform. This past January, UNESCO, and the World Jewish Congress partnered with TikTok to combat Holocaust distortion and denial, directing users to verify information when searching for terms related to the Holocaust.
Sociologist Jennifer Rich’s 2020 review essay covers four of the most recent books on Holocaust education. Rich is the Executive Director of the Rowan Center for the Study of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rowan University. Her essay reviews Paula Cowan and Henry Maitles’ “Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education,” Claus-Christian W. Szejnmann, Paula Cowan, and James Griffiths’ “Holocaust Education in Primary Schools in the Twenty-First Century: Current Practices, Potentials, and Ways Forward,” Michael Gray’s “Contemporary Debates in Holocaust Education,” and Samuel Totten and Stephen Feinberg’s “Essential Issues of Holocaust Education: Fundamental Issues and Approaches. Cowan and Maitles make an important point when they discuss the connection between Holocaust education and citizenship education, balancing learning about the event with broader lessons. They argue that historical context and universal lessons should be equally valued in Holocaust education. (33)
As time passes, it is becoming more challenging to make the Holocaust real, tangible, and relevant to students, and that is where the problems start, especially in teaching the Holocaust. Laura June Hilton and Avinoam Patt’s 2020 edited volume, Understanding and Teaching the Holocaust, is the most recent attempt at a comprehensive text about both content and how to teach the Holocaust in today’s challenging society. Hilton and Patt concur with Michael Gray regarding dealing with the historical context and teaching facts and details instead of generalizations. History is the foundation for any teaching of the Holocaust. Hilton and Patt explain that teaching the Holocaust requires careful guidance from educators. They must ground topics within their historical context and understand how it is represented through written primary sources, images, testimonies, memoirs, plays, art, film, monuments, and memorials.
The Claims Conference survey has one positive: American youth believe Holocaust education is essential. The survey found that 64 percent of Millennials and Gen Z believe Holocaust education should be compulsory in schools, with 80% believing it is crucial to prevent it from happening again. However, state funding and specialized teacher training are needed for this to happen. Rich’s 2019 study, “It led to great advances in science: What teacher candidates know about the Holocaust,” about teaching the Holocaust in New Jersey, found that undergraduate pre-service teachers “lack basic knowledge” about the Holocaust, displaying inaccuracies and dismissive language. As Gray indicates, the historical context is vital when teaching the Holocaust in any discipline or curriculum.
The situation is different in Jewish day schools, but still, there are too many simplifications and basic facts. In 2014, Ann Nachbar, a Jewish history teacher at Gesher Jewish Day School in Falls Church, Virginia, wrote an article entitled “Understanding the Holocaust, as Jews” in Hayidion describing the curriculum approach at her school. American Jewish day schools teach the Holocaust chronologically, focusing on anti-Semitism, Hitler’s rise, Kristallnacht, and Auschwitz. Lessons cover resistance, liberation, and war crimes trials. The often morality-filled curriculum aims to inspire students to stand up for victims of present discrimination. The basic format distorts the Jewish experience during the Holocaust and fails to provide a central lesson for Jews to learn.
Even in Jewish day schools, the curriculum focuses on the Holocaust, the Warsaw ghetto, and Auschwitz. However, the Holocaust was a chaotic experience for 9.5 million European Jews before World War II, but teaching it in the orderly context of Nazi Germany’s rise distorts the Jewish experience. It is crucial to understand the pressures and resources faced by ordinary Jews and not to limit the Holocaust to specific locations. Jewish day schools can address curricular shortcomings by teaching Holocaust history and guiding students to understand the lesson of never being powerless. Nachbar believes the best approach is restructuring the curriculum to focus on well-chosen memoirs and other historical materials. Studying the past helps understand society’s past, including antisemitism, and inspires young people to speak up against it. Holocaust education is not being neutral, but taking a side, knowing the history and moral lessons, and then students can be a catalyst for change.
TikTok joins forces with UNESCO and the WJC to combat denial and distortion of the Holocaust online, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du judaïsme, 27 January 2022.
“The Claims Conference has conducted seven surveys across six countries examining Holocaust knowledge and awareness worldwide,” September 16, 2020.
Barnett, Emma. “Holocaust survivors turn to TikTok to teach a new generation not to forget They’re sharing firsthand testimonials on social media, and young people are listening.” NBC News, Nov. 13, 2022.
Gray, Michael. Teaching the Holocaust: Practical Approaches for Ages 11–18. Routledge, 2015.
Hilton, Laura June, and Avinoam J. Patt, editors. Understanding and Teaching the Holocaust. University of Wisconsin Press, 2020.
Rich, Jennifer. “Understanding and Teaching Holocaust Education
Holocaust Education in Primary Schools in the Twenty-First Century: Current Practices, Potentials, and Ways Forward
Contemporary Debates in Holocaust Education
Essential Issues of Holocaust Education: Fundamental Issues and Approaches,” Journal of Jewish Education, 86:1, 120–124, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/15244113.2020.1707638