OPINION: Have we failed to teach lessons of the Holocaust?
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OPINION: Have we failed to teach lessons of the Holocaust?

Olivia Marks-Woldman of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and historian Trudy Gold, reflect on how effective Shoah education has been - ahead of a panel discussion at JW3

Students on the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET)/UJS Lessons from Auschwitz Universities Project, visiting Auschwitz. Photo credit: Yakir Zur
Students on the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET)/UJS Lessons from Auschwitz Universities Project, visiting Auschwitz. Photo credit: Yakir Zur

The events that led to the Holocaust were complex, but one thing is certain: one of the major factors was the 2,000-year-old tradition of Jew-hate. Despite all the efforts of many excellent organisations active in Holocaust education today, antisemitism is at an alarming level. Do we expect too much? And is teaching the Holocaust really able to cure antisemitism?

We are confident that most readers of Jewish News will know that approximately six million Jews were murdered.

How widely known do you think this figure is, among the general UK population? We were surprised to find that 64 percent of respondents to a poll commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) did not know the answer – with the majority of respondents either grossly underestimating the numbers or not even hazarding a guess.

This figure is in line with similar research and polls conducted in Europe and America on the general population’s understanding of the Holocaust. In the US, a survey last year showed that 66 percent of millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was, and a CNN poll found that a third of respondents knew ‘just a little or nothing at all’ about the Holocaust. In France, an astonishing 20 percent of 18-34 year-olds said they had never heard of the Holocaust.

Although we think this central fact of the Holocaust, the six million victims, is universally known, and although the Holocaust has been on the curriculum in the UK since the late 1980s, knowledge of this basic, fundamental fact is not widespread.

This lack of knowledge is more concerning in the context of increasing antisemitism: the Community Security Trust (CST) recorded 1,652 antisemitic incidents in the UK in 2018, the highest total CST has ever recorded in a single calendar year. Online, antisemitism proliferates, often including distortion or denial of the Holocaust.

So, has Holocaust education failed?

Olivia Marks-Woldman and Trudy Gold

We – JW3 and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust – are organising a panel discussion to consider this difficult question.

This question is more complex than it may appear. Educators with different audiences will have their own aims for Holocaust education, and therefore specific methods for achieving those aims.

Holocaust education means something different for a museum working with adult visitors, for workshops in a young offenders’ institution, for lessons in a primary school, a lecture at a university and a local authority putting on an HMD event.

We are fortunate in the UK to have a wonderfully rich and varied range of Holocaust educational opportunities, for adults and young people, Jewish and non-Jewish: museums, exhibitions, trips to Auschwitz, courses for teachers, materials for schoolchildren, lectures and more. The UK is also a world leader in marking HMD, setting an example for other countries in ensuring commemoration is linked with education, has contemporary resonance and inspires action.

Our event will focus on the different approaches and perspectives from some of the many organisations in this field, and explore the implications of this question.

Opportunities to learn about the Holocaust must be encouraged – not once, in one lesson for children, but in formal and informal educational environments, for adults and young people, and reinforced again and again.

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