The NYT Says We’re Forgetting About the Holocaust

History suggests otherwise.

A general view of the Auschwitz main gate during the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oświęcim.
A general view of the Auschwitz main gate during the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oświęcim. Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

We’re forgetting about the Holocaust. Or so argues a survey by the Claims Conference, released Thursday and written up in the New York Times under the desolate headline “Holocaust Is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds.” Among the startling statistics: 11 percent of all U.S. adults, and 22 percent of millennials, are “unaware” or “not sure” of the Holocaust. And 31 percent of adults (and 41 percent of millennials) think that 2 million Jews, or fewer, had been killed. (The real number is 6 million.) Also, 41 percent of adults couldn’t identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp, a death/extermination camp, or a forced-labor camp.

The Claims Conference’s survey, and the Times’ write-up, presumes that our knowledge gaps are getting worse and will only become more dire as we move forward in time. The emphasis on millennials’ relative ignorance drives this point home. Because things today feel worse (see: creeping ambient fascism and anti-Semitism), this conclusion seems to make a kind of dark, intuitive sense. But how did people’s knowledge of the Holocaust in years past compare to our bad showing in 2018? And are we really, as the Times’ coverage implies, less committed to remembering the genocide than we were in years past, when we had more survivors on hand to testify to what they saw?

Historian Peter Shulman, who runs the @HistOpinion Twitter feed and likes looking at historical opinion research, compiled a number of answers from old polls on Thursday morning, showing that the narrative of declining knowledge that’s depressed so many Times readers may not be entirely correct. In the polls Shulman referenced, questions asking people of the 1980s and 1990s for factual knowledge about the Holocaust returned blank spots just as glaring as our own.

In 1985, Roper found that 32 percent of respondents said they weren’t sure, or volunteered the wrong answer, when asked, “What is or was the Holocaust?” In responding to surveyors’ questions about the numbers of dead, 25 percent of the respondents in a 1992 Roper poll guessed 2 million Jews or fewer had been killed; 10 percent guessed 20 million; 20 percent chose not to answer. That same year, 38 percent of respondents couldn’t identify Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka as concentration camps—a blooper even more notable, as Shulman writes, because those respondents (unlike the 2018 group) were given three names to jog their memories.

When it came to attitudes about the importance of this history, it seems that Americans of a few decades ago weren’t necessarily more committed to Holocaust education and memory than those responding to the recent survey. In 1992, Shulman found, a majority of respondents surveyed by Roper shared the belief that it’s morally imperative to know about this history. 72 percent said it was “essential” or “very important” for “Americans to know about and understand the Holocaust.” But that left 28 percent of respondents who wouldn’t commit to that position. In 1994, only 87 percent of Roper respondents were willing to say that learning about the Holocaust in school was “very” or “somewhat important.” In 2006, only 79 percent would respond “strongly support” or “somewhat support” to the proposition of “mandatory genocide education in public schools.” If you compare those numbers to today’s results—93 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement “All students should learn about the Holocaust while at school”—it starts to look like we’re doing pretty well.

Shulman didn’t share older data on Holocaust denialism, but it’s also important to remember that the weaponization of ignorance about the Holocaust is decades in the making. A culture of Holocaust denialism in the United States, as this timeline put together by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum shows, dates back at least to the publication of Gerald L.K. Smith’s Cross and the Flag in 1959. Given that long history, maybe it’s good news that 96 percent of the 2018 respondents believed that the Holocaust actually occurred. (That depends on how you see things, I suppose. The Times piece called denial “rare,” but 4 percent who will refuse such abundant evidence still feels like an uncomfortably large number to me.)

What’s the ultimate takeaway from this mixed bag of results? We could start with a maxim: Never get too upset about apparent evidence of historical ignorance. Ever since I read historian Sam Wineburg’s 2004 article in the Journal of American History, I’ve been wary of the way people use tests of knowledge to show that present-day Americans are uniquely bad at remembering the past. Wineburg illustrates that surveys asking for historical facts have long shown that Americans, especially young people, are “deficient” in their ability to rattle off dates and names.

Among the pieces of evidence Wineburg uses in that article is a 1915–16 study of historical factual knowledge. The test, administered to 1,500 students in Texas, found that the young people committed blunders like confusing Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis, “uproot[ing] the Articles of Confederation from the eighteenth century and plunk[ing] them down in the Confederacy,” and having zero idea of the significance of the year 1846 in the history of their state. “A sober look at a century of history testing provides no evidence for the ‘gradual disintegration of cultural memory’ or ‘a growing historical ignorance,’ ” Wineburg contends. “The only thing growing seems to be our amnesia of past ignorance.”

Of course, hearing that people in 2018 have a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust feels different than hearing that people in 1915 had a lack of knowledge about Jefferson Davis. But I think the positive results of the survey questions that ask whether people think others should know, and care, about this history are far more important—and heartening. And, as Shulman points out, knowledge and care about a historical event don’t necessarily have to fade as the event recedes further into the past.

Of course, we should mourn the loss of the survivors who’ve spent years telling us what happened. Their testimony was crucial; they’re leaving us just as we face a global crisis that’s testing whether historical memory of fascism’s effects will prevent disaster. But as long as we’ve got the will to remember, there’s hope.