Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun executive director Valarie Hurwitz and Rabbi Saul Grife light the 11 candles in memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others who perished in the Holocaust. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

by Barbara Sherf

Locally there was mixed reaction to a recent poll that found two-thirds of American millennials (age18-34) surveyed could not identify what Auschwitz was, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 11). The study also found that knowledge of the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II was not robust among American adults.

Conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the study,  interviewed 1,350 American adults in February, who were recruited by telephone and an online non-probability sample.

Asked to identify what Auschwitz was, 41 percent of respondents and 66 percent of millennials could not come up with a correct response identifying it as a concentration camp or extermination camp.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said that at least 1.3 million people were deported to the camp, run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland from 1940 to 1945, and 1.1 million of them were killed. It was the largest concentration camp among many built by the Nazis during their campaign to wipe out the Jews and other groups.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said Rabbi Saul Grife, of beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in Wyndmoor. “One could argue that the Holocaust is mainly viewed as a Jewish question, but the reality it is a human question, because along with six million Jews, five million others perished.”

Wynnewood resident and Aushwitz survivor Michael Herkovitz, 90, who has given numerous talks in schools, was not surprised by the numbers.

“I try my best to reach these kids, but they are dozing off or doodling, and even the teachers are not very well informed,” Herskovitz said. “I’m not sure how to promote what I am doing and reach the younger generation. It can, at times, be very frustrating.”

Dr. David Low, a Flourtown resident and a former adjunct professor of religious studies at La Salle University and Chestnut Hill College and author of “Universal Spiritual Philosophy and Practice” was shocked at the poll results.

“That is appalling,” Low said. “I wouldn’t have expected that many to be so ignorant, even with so many of the schools being the way they are these days. Social media must be making a lot of people into real idiots.”

Millennial Nick Johnson, 26, communication coordinator at Or-Ami Synagogue, in Lafayette Hill, was not surprised.

“I guess I don’t consider myself a millennial, but I’m saddened about those statistics,” Johnson said.

Ralph Franklin, 90, of Elkins Park, speaks to a variety of groups in order to keep the history alive.

“My father was in a camp, and I got out in ‘41 before things got real bad,” Franklin said. “My father got out too. It doesn’t surprise me, yet it’s something we have to keep alive. We need to keep the history alive.”

Ivy L. Barsky, director and CEO of Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, said the results showed a lack of proper education on the subject.

“As someone who runs a history museum, I believe deeply in the importance of understanding where we’ve been– the good and the bad—in order to inform our present and future,” Barsky said. “It’s distressing to know that such a high percentage of young people today aren’t getting sufficient Holocaust education, though it’s heartening that so many believe that it is important. It means the will is there.

“Museums can and do play an important role in providing safe, educational spaces for raising complicated questions and engaging visitors of all ages and backgrounds in conversations about the relevance of those events in our lives today and what we need to know to be informed citizens in a democracy. We owe it to survivors and to our country.”

Mindy Blatt, of the Jewish Children’s Folkshul and Adult Community at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, had this to say:

“I was personally saddened to read about the survey results. The study certainly reflects the continuing need for important educational programs, such as the Jewish Federation’s Youth Symposium on the Holocaust, that bring together high school students to hear from Holocaust survivors and reflect on the responsibility each of us has in passing on their stories.”

When Philadelphia native Rhonda Fink-Whitman heard about a Holocaust and Genocide Education bill lingering in Pennsylvania’s legislature a few years ago, she was shocked to learn that these weren’t already required subjects. Her recent work demonstrated a lack of basic understanding about the Holocaust on college campuses.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor and author of a novel “94 Maidens,” based on her mother’s experiences in a concentration camp, she met with then State Rep. Brendan Boyle, who had proposed the bill, through the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia.

Armed with a camera, a microphone and a list of questions, she set out to visit a handful of college campuses in her home state of Pennsylvania to see what other kids knew.

“What was the Holocaust?” or “Can you name a concentration camp?,” she would ask on the idyllic grounds of Penn State, Drexel or Temple, or maybe “What country was Hitler the leader of?,” or “What is genocide?” Much of the video’s runtime features students stumbling over their words, trying to come up with answers. Her video at www.94Maidens.com has had nearly a half million views.

According to the Pennsylvania Board of Education website, three years after a bill prioritizing Holocaust instruction in Pennsylvania schools was signed, the state Board of Education reported that a commanding 90 percent of schools now provide age-appropriate education on the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations as a standing part of their curricula.

“Last week Kentucky came on board – yet only nine out of 41 states have legislation in place, and we now have 68 sponsors of HR 276 to get Holocaust education mandated in every state,” Fink-Whitman said, adding that the bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by Congressmen Boyle and Brian Fitzpatrick, along with two Florida representatives.

The Jewish Children’s Folkshul and Adult Community will be hosting a Holocaust Survivor lecture Sunday, April 22. For the exact location email mindy@folkshul.org.

The Holocaust Awareness and Education Center has a Survivor speakers bureau at http://www.hamec.org/ The National Museum of American Jewish History website is www.nmajh.org.

Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com

 

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