While a new survey revealed a concerning lack of Holocaust knowledge among American young adults, recently passed legislation in New Hampshire might help address the problem.
Gov. Chris Sununu signed House Bill 1135 into law in July. The legislation requires Holocaust and genocide education to be taught in Granite State schools. The law also establishes a commission to study educational best practices for instruction, make recommendations on policies for school districts to teach the topics and suggest to the state board of education rules for fulfilling the new requirement.
Earlier this month, The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a group representing the world’s Jewish population in negotiating compensation and restitution for victims of Nazi persecution, released a nation-wide survey on Holocaust education. The survey polled 11,000 millennials and members of Generation Z — 200 in each state and another 1,000 nationwide — and found a lack of awareness about the Holocaust among Americans between the ages of 18 and 39.
Across the country, the survey found that some 63 percent of respondents did not know the number of Jews killed during the Nazi-led genocide, while 48 percent were unable to name a single concentration camp. Twelve percent of the survey pool had not heard of the Holocaust.
The findings were similar in New Hampshire, where 45 percent of respondents were unable to name a concentration camp and only 36 percent were able to identify correctly that an estimated 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Ten percent of respondents said they believe Jews caused the Holocaust — 11 percent said this nationally — and 33 percent didn’t know which war the genocide is associated with.
Tom White, coordinator of educational outreach for Keene State College’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, said news of gaps in Holocaust knowledge did not come as a shock.
“The news was not surprising,” he told The Sentinel in an email. “It reflects the ongoing importance and urgency of education.”
In fact, in 2018, another survey from The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that about two-thirds of Millennials didn’t know what Auschwitz was.
Even before this latest report, New Hampshire legislators were working on plans to increase genocide education. The N.H. Senate unanimously passed House Bill 1135 on June 16, and the House concurred by a vote of 299-17 on June 30. On July 23, Sununu signed the bill into law.
The legislation added Holocaust and genocide studies to the state’s definition of an “adequate education,” joining other already required subjects such as geography, government, civics and economics. The commission established by the bill will include legislators, teachers and administrators, survivors or direct descendants of survivors of the Holocaust or another genocide, and a representative from the Cohen Center.
White said the Cohen Center will play an important role on the commission.
State Sen. Jay Kahn, a Keene Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor, said the latest numbers show that Holocaust knowledge could be improved upon with additional education. However, he said he’s encouraged by the widespread support for HB 1135, noting its easy passage through the state Legislature.
As generations become more removed from the events of World War II, he noted, there are fewer people to share their accounts of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. He said the importance of Holocaust and genocide education is not just to teach history, but also to teach civic responsibility, noting that human rights abuses continue today.
“Authoritarianism is one of those dynamics that works against the survival of democracies and [encourages] the rise of bigotries,” Kahn said. “And I think there are seeds of that today in many countries, including the United States.”
With a well-established Holocaust and genocide education program already in place at Keene State, White said the news will not change the college’s approach to teaching these topics. But he emphasized the importance of its professors and commended their “outstanding work” in helping students navigate one of history’s most traumatic events.
“If anything, [the survey] highlights how important our teachers are and how much they need our ongoing and growing support,” White said. “Teachers help guide students in how to confront difficult and painful history and discuss it in the safe space of their classroom. It is something we need much more of.”