For Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the New York Times referenced a survey suggesting that people, despite the Holocaust’s associated “never forget” sentiments, are beginning to forget one of history’s deadliest genocides. With 41 percent of millenials unsure of the amount of Jewish victims murdered and 66 percent of the same subset uncertain about what Auschwitz is, it seems as if the tragedy, taking place just 73 short years ago, seems to be fading from memory.
To find out if these statistics were consistent with university students, a survey inspired by the original survey was sent out by The Review and was circulated primarily by the university’s English department. At the time of publication, 138 participants had responded. It asked students about their opinions on Holocaust education and memory, and how they view antisemitism in the world and at the university.
The results of the survey were mixed. When asked if students had heard of the Holocaust, 100 percent answered affirmatively, but when asked how educated they felt on the topic, only 52.6 percent of those who responded said that they felt sufficiently educated on more than just the basic facts of the genocide. When asked if they agreed that fewer people seemed to care about the Holocaust as much as they used to, 64.2 percent of students agreed. And when asked if students believe that it’s important to teach about the Holocaust so that it does not happen again, 99.3 percent agreed they did. Yet, the knowledge seems to be fading so rapidly, according to the country-wide survey.
About a fourth of students were incorrect in their assumption of how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, exemplifying this decrease in knowledge that seems to be infiltrating our generation. However, when asked if antisemitism is a problem in the United States today, 93.4 percent agreed. So why is the memory fading? Why do millennials seem to lack an extensive education on a subject so revolutionary?
“As a teacher of Holocaust history and the memory of the Holocaust in the western world, it’s surprising to hear how thin the collective awareness in this generation is,” David Winkler, a professor of Italian and Holocaust studies at the university, says. “I’ve seen how the Holocaust has become an American memory. It’s part of our national collective memory in a way, some would argue, that even our own domestic atrocities like the Trail of Tears and Jim Crow and slavery are not.”
Winkler, a Ph.D. in Italian with his dissertation focused around survivor literature on Holocaust memory, believes that this lack of knowledge comes from the short attention span of millennials.
“It’s hard to keep a 19 year old’s attention for more than three or four minutes, and if you want to learn something substantive about the Holocaust, you need way more than three or four minutes,” Winkler says. “If you’ve got the universe at your fingertips, how do you get someone to sit down and think carefully about one thing which can be dry, boring and very emotionally painful for hours and hours? The answer is, you can’t.”
Nathan Seidman, a senior English major at the university, feels like there should be a greater focus on teaching about the Holocaust, but also believes that students become apathetic learning about the same facts each year.
“We should obviously teach all of the horrific atrocities that happened, but we should also focus a lot on how we got there,” Seidman says. “Because it wasn’t like it was suddenly one moment where the Holocaust just occured, Hitler spent many years building up that antisemitism slowly. I feel like people need to see the earlier sides.”
The end of the survey asked about antisemitism on the university’s campus — 47.4 percent of students agreed that there indeed was antisemitism on our campus. This large percentage illustrates a clear problem. With the forgetting that seems to be happening across the country brings the possibility of history repeating itself. This is evident in the resounding 87.6 percent of students that answered affirmatively when asked if they believed that something like the Holocaust could happen again.
“I think that young people, and perhaps our school curricula, should do more to teach, equip and arm young people with the critical thinking apparati that they need to encounter this bombardment of information that they’re getting from all sources, and approach it in a more thorough and critical way,” Winkler says.