Opinion | We need to improve Holocaust education

By Rachel Soloff, Staff Columnist

From Jews being blamed for starting California wildfires with laser beams to more sinister stereotypes stemming from a rise in fascism, anti-Semitism is at an all-time high. The Anti-Defamation League reported in 2019 that anti-Semitic attacks were the highest on record in 40 years. Fascist parties around the world have been gaining both government seats and a more vocal following.

One factor contributing to this rise could be the lack of substantial and meaningful Holocaust education in America. The results of not improving this education are dire. When surveyed, 66% of millennials did not know what Auschwitz, the most lethal Nazi concentration camp, was and 41% thought less than 2 million Jews perished during the Holocaust — in reality, the Nazis killed 6 million Jews. The effects of this lack of knowledge can be dire, causing more anti-Semitic attacks and apathetic bystanders.

As the generation who survived the Holocaust begins to age out, it’s important now more than ever that we hear survivors’ stories, and that we require a substantive education for everyone on the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Without it, the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism will continue to grow. By learning about the Holocaust, we can learn the signs of such atrocities and prevent something like it from happening again.

Currently, only 15 states require education on the Holocaust, with no indication of how substantial this education should be. Three additional states recommend — though do not require — that students learn about the Holocaust. Pennsylvania falls into this category. Wisconsin did not change its laws to require Holocaust education in schools, even after photos surfaced of 30 boys from the state raising Nazi salutes before their junior prom. They faced no repercussions. This is absolutely unacceptable. Maybe if schools taught these students about the horrors of the Holocaust, they could’ve realized the atrocity that that salute holds and understand why it is so disrespectful.

Even with Holocaust education mandates, the quality of said education is still spotty and inconsistent. The education requirements vary from state to state, but most are vague and non-comprehensive. While a factual education on the Holocaust is important, having students engage in critical thinking about the events is equally important. Students should learn about bias, prejudice and the bystander effect — and how this all allowed the Holocaust to happen.

Programs such as those offered by the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center focus on how to be an upstander, not a bystander. It also teaches students ways to bring awareness to human rights issues. Programming like this helps students to think critically about ways that they can change their own behavior and look inward. It’s a way for them to think empathetically about the Holocaust instead of looking at it like it is a list of facts in a textbook. By teaching students these skills, we can ensure that they will be able to spot the signs of their peers having anti-Semitic attitudes to make certain events like the Holocaust will never happen again.

Additionally, while time still allows, students should be exposed to first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors as a way to humanize the Holocaust. Hearing a survivor tell their story is so impactful to understanding how little time has actually passed since the tragedies of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, as the generation of Holocaust survivors is aging out, first-hand accounts will be less common in the future. We need to teach these stories to the next generation to continue to pass them on.

Germany has done a great job with Holocaust education. As a rising tide of nationalist parties gain seats in the German parliament, educators have shaped their Holocaust education program to center around these current events. The educators emphasize how and why it is important for students to learn about the tragedies that occurred in their country and the repercussions they have today. Germany has a program called “Schools without Racism” that works with the federal government to provide resources to schools and help shape the programming to fit with the times, focusing not only on the past but also the future. The United States should work to create a better national curriculum to teach the Holocaust in a living model like in Germany so students can recognize the effects of the Holocaust that still permeate our society today.

Education is the number one way to stop ignorance. By improving our education about mass tragedies such as the Holocaust, we can chip away at ignorant attitudes and prejudiced behaviors against Jews and other minorities. If we can take away one lesson from the Holocaust, it’s that fascism and nationalism thrive when there is a lack of accurate and available knowledge. By providing everyone with a proper education about the past, we can avoid repeating mistakes in the future. By educating the next generation, we can ensure that they become empathic adults instead of apathetic ones, and that starts from creating empathetic children.

Holocaust education is not something we should take lightly. The fact that so few states have sufficient programs to teach the next generation about the sufferings of the past is appalling and could eventually lead to even more anti-Semitic attacks and ignorant behavior. Teaching the Holocaust in a meaningful way is something that helps us all in the end. It teaches tolerance, empathy and anti-bias. But only if done correctly. 

Rachel Soloff writes primarily about entertainment and social justice. Write to her at [email protected].