New Jersey is one of just 12 states to require Holocaust education in all school districts, having mandated it in 1994. Also, the Morris Museum in Morristown is running “Painting to Testify: Early Post-Liberation Works by David Friedmann” through Sunday, Feb. 2. The exhibition of paintings by Friedmann, a portraitist in Berlin and Prague who was deported to Lodz Ghetto in 1941, portrays his story of survival during the Holocaust.
Now there is hard data to suggest that Holocaust education goes well beyond mere symbolism.
A just-released Pew Research Center survey reveals that students visiting Holocaust exhibits and museums can actually improve one’s knowledge of the Holocaust and result in warmer feeling toward Jews. It appears to be the first study confirming the efficacy of such museum visits.
According to the Pew survey, U.S. adults who said they had visited a Holocaust memorial or museum (27 percent of 10,971 respondents in an online survey) correctly answered 2.9 out of four multiple-choice questions posed about the Holocaust. By comparison, those who have never visited a Holocaust memorial or museum answered 2.0 questions right, on average.
In addition, the survey said, “respondents who get more questions right also tend to express warmer feelings toward Jews.”
Conversely, non-Jews who either did not know how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, declined to answer or overestimated the number expressed “cold feelings toward Jews.”
The survey was conducted online from Feb. 4-19, 2019, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent.
A separate survey for about 1,800 American teenagers ages 13 to 17 found that on average they displayed a lower level of knowledge about the Holocaust than their elders. Only 38 percent of teens knew 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust (45 percent of adults knew) and just one-third knew Adolf Hitler came to power through a democratic process (compared to 43 percent of adults).
The survey found also that while Jews, atheists, and agnostics correctly answered an average of three of the four questions about the Holocaust, Mainline Protestants, Mormons, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Americans who described their religion as “nothing in particular” answered about half of the questions correctly. In addition, the Pew study found that “members of the historically black Protestant tradition got one of four right, on average.”
Survivor Mark Schoenwetter, 85, of Livingston, a native of Brzostek, Poland, who was hidden by a family in his hometown during World War II and immigrated to Israel in 1957 and the United States in 1961, was not surprised at the level of ignorance about the Holocaust demonstrated by many Americans.
“America is not totally one America,” he told NJJN in a telephone interview. “We live in the [New York] metropolitan area and the Holocaust is talked about. I traveled for my business when I was working, and I met a lot of people in other parts of the country who never heard much of anything about the Holocaust. We must teach both what happened and what led up to it to the younger generation. There are a lot of deniers out there. There has to be those who teach with the facts in the next generations.”
Schoenwetter, who has spoken of his experience in the Holocaust at schools, said the results of the survey are not necessarily new, either.
“I will never forget when I first came to the United States, and I was asked about the war. I told people we had it bad and I was lucky I wasn’t in a camp,” he said. “They said it was bad in America, having to eat chicken instead of beef. Many didn’t realize, and still don’t realize, what Jews faced.”
Sol Lurie, 89, of Monroe Township agreed that the evidence that many Americans do not seem to have a deep knowledge of the Shoah is old news.
“This is really nothing new,” said Lurie, a native of Kovno, Lithuania, who survived both Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau and will be in Poland next week for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “In a lot of places, the Holocaust isn’t even talked about and they don’t know. Around here, thankfully, they do know.”
Lurie, who speaks both locally and nationally as a witness to Nazi atrocities, worries that when this remaining group of elderly survivors passes, knowledge will fade even more.
“I am willing to speak to any group or anyone, as long as I am alive,” he said. “I want people to realize what happened. Who will be there to keep the memories alive?”
Jerry Zegman, 97, who lives in the Concordia area of Monroe Township, also believes, as the survey states, that knowledge of the Holocaust is not on the forefront in many American communities.
“Often, in the life we have in America [the Holocaust] is simply brushed off,” said Zegman, a native of Radom, Poland, who also survived Dachau and Auschwitz. “Americans want to hear about good things, not bad things. I worry that when all survivors close their eyes who will be there to tell what happened. I will, as long as my eyes are open.”
No quick fix
Abraham Foxman, director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League and head of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to The Holocaust’s Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in Manhattan, said he believes in the worth of Holocaust museums because of the “impact of seeing and touching and feeling [the exhibits]. That is why museums are becoming more interactive — they have more of an impact than just reading alone.”
But Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, stressed that “going to a Holocaust museum is not a magic bullet against anti-Semitism. There has to be more within a larger context, otherwise they will go in and say, ‘You see, the Nazis hated the Jews, too.’”
Foxman agreed, saying: “There is no quick fix to undoing hate; it’s a very long process. But the experience one has in museums is one element in the unlearning of hate or being sensitized to prejudice. It provides a deeper understanding of what happened than reading a book or seeing a movie.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.