Remembrance starts and continues with awareness
Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, is critical to the Jewish experience as we recall those who suffered and perished by the hands of fellow citizens from a developed and sophisticated society. There is currently growing concern about the weakening knowledge of the Holocaust and its legacy. As the crisis grows, there may be a need to rethink how to best initiate understanding and preserve the commitment of Never Again. Holocaust knowledge is typically referred to as remembrance. But, how can one remember an event they are not even aware of?
A 2020 Pew research study on American knowledge of the Holocaust shows that though most adults in the United States know what the Holocaust was and when it happened, fewer than half “know that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process,” and only “45% of American adults know that the Nazis killed approximately 6 million Jews in the Holocaust” (Pew, 2020). This troubling statistic motivated the researchers to investigate whether this lack of knowledge comes from a genuine underestimation of the enormity of the Holocaust, or from antisemitic feelings towards the Jewish people. They eventually concluded that there was an overall warm view of the Jewish people from the survey results. So, if the participants’ underestimation of the facts is not linked to hostility towards Jews, then it is likely due to a lack of awareness. For one to remember, they already have to know the history. Over time memory is likely to deteriorate causing a loss of guarantee to pass down from generation to generation.
To prove this point, a potentially more consequential result from this survey shows that, from 1,800 13 to 17-year-olds in the United States, American teens know less about the Holocaust than their elders do. Their average correct response was about 2.2 answers out of 4, which is half of the survey. Furthermore, focusing on teenagers raises an important issue concerning the Holocaust and its tendency to often appear with the term remembrance or memory. As previously stated, one can only remember something one knows, and there is clearly an evident lack of knowledge.
With the periodic banning of Holocaust books, such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Maus by Art Spiegelman, the building of awareness surrounding the Holocaust is under threat. In 2020, the Claims Conference, a nonprofit organization that secures material compensation for Holocaust survivors, conducted its “First Ever 50-State Survey on Holocaust Knowledge of American Millennials and Gen Z,” revealing shocking results. For example, 63% of students throughout the United States did not know that the Nazis killed six million Jews, and 48% of the respondents could not name a single death camp, concentration camp or ghetto, even though there were more than 40,000 in Europe at the time (Claims Conference, 2020). Students in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Idaho were among those with the highest scores. At the same time, a state that is home to the most Jews in the United States, New York, has students with the lowest knowledge, on par with results from Arkansas, Florida, and Maryland. Reading about New Yorkers’ lack of Holocaust knowledge illustrated just how nuclear the framing of remembrance to the Jewish people has become. The central goal of raising awareness is to advance learning through a broad and intersectional measure, extending beyond Jewish classrooms.
As Holocaust education is at the forefront of Holocaust remembrance advocacy, it has to be paired with the fight to raise awareness. This reframing is not to say that Yom HaShoah should change its calling, but additionally should shine light on how we collectively, as a larger society, understand the importance of being aware of the Holocaust. Remembrance signals a responsibility of knowledge of the Holocaust on Jewish people. Awareness places additional responsibilities on others. Raising awareness inspires caring, which is a first step in raising public consciousness of the horrors 58% of Americans believe could happen again (Claims Conference). Other genocides, like the Rwandan and Armenian genocides, are incredibly important to acknowledge and learn about as well.
As survivors and first-hand witnesses continue to decrease, remembrance can, unfortunately, become a faded memory. It is critical that all people understand and remember the rise of Nazism, the warning signs, and the state-supported industrialized genocide of Jews and other minorities within an otherwise advanced and cultured Europe. Therefore, the concept of detailed awareness should be paired with Holocaust education and remembrance. It is important to make historical and political facts accessible, so everyone can understand how anyone can be the victim of propaganda and scapegoating.