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Ensuring Holocaust Education Informs Moral Choices

Julius Berman Julius Berman

Julius Berman, longstanding YU Board of Trustees member, president of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and tireless advocate for Holocaust survivors, discusses the results of a new survey on Holocaust knowledge in France and how it informs the state of Holocaust education today.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which also marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we are met with the stark realization that the need for Holocaust education for younger generations worldwide is more essential than ever as living testimony from the last group of survivors rapidly fades.

With that imperative in mind, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (known as the Claims Conference) released on Jan. 22, 2020, a comprehensive Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey of adults in France.

Representing the fourth in a series of global surveys conducted by the Claims Conference to determine the state of Holocaust knowledge globally, the study assessed participants’ understanding of the Holocaust and attitudes towards Holocaust education. Like those surveys previously conducted in Austria (April 2019), Canada (January 2019) and the United States (April 2018), this most recent report reveals disturbing gaps in knowledge regarding this catastrophic period in history.

Most of the respondents (57%) in the French survey are unaware that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. That number jumps significantly to 69% among Millennial and Gen Z respondents.

Alarmingly, more than half of those polled in the French study (52%) believe that something like the Holocaust could happen again in Europe. This mirrors findings from the previously conducted Austrian survey, in which 47% indicated a similar belief.

As ignorance of historical facts concerning the Holocaust deepens, how does this distressing trend impact Holocaust education for younger generations?

YU News sat down with Julius Berman to get his reaction and thoughts on how we should move forward. As a lifelong advocate for Holocaust education, he shared his unique and rich perspective.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

What is your reaction to the France survey?
Once again, we are seeing a significant and dangerous gap in how younger generations around the world understand the Holocaust, a history that is critically important not just to Jews but to humanity.

At one time, we thought that we had done the work needed and that we could sit on our laurels. But now it’s just the opposite. The results of the French survey are confirming an unsettlingly trend. Ignorance of the Holocaust is accelerating globally. We must strengthen our educational efforts to inform the non-Jewish world, both young and old, of this history. In fact, it is critical even for Jews themselves.

How do we move forward and combat this trend?
Our current Holocaust education is not ample. We need to come up with new models and new ways to reach the broadest reach of people utilizing the resources we have and ensure that younger generations are armed with the right information. As our French colleague Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Representative Council of French Institutions, noted, “Even though there has been much education of the Shoah, we all know that education has to be repeated again and again and adapted to speak to each generation.”

How is the Claims Conference addressing this challenge?
At the Claims Conference, we spend an enormous amount of time and money in educating public school teachers about the value they can impart by teaching the history of the Holocaust as well that of anti-Semitism. We look to ensure that non-Jewish students learn more about this historical tragedy so that they are less susceptible to the false narratives and factual distortions that have become so pervasive.

Can you provide some specific examples?
Over a three-year period, the Claims Conference has provided training to teachers from 59 countries with an estimated long-term impact on 30 million students. When you train a history teacher about the Holocaust, the impact can be enormous. You’re just not sharing knowledge with one generation but the next and the next. You’re laying a foundation for knowledge to take root.

We are also using new educational vehicles to reach younger generations. At the Claims Conference, we’re exploring how to better connect with young people across the globe through more innovative uses of media and other channels, the types of educational vehicles they would more readily engage with. Our hope is that by broadening our reach, we can make a real impact in those parts of the world where Holocaust denialism and distortion have taken hold.

Any last thoughts?
When Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor and author of If This is a Man, said, “It happened, therefore it can happen again,” he was throwing out a challenge to all of us. Are we up to the task of understanding, preserving and passing on a body of historical knowledge that can inform moral choices throughout generations? Given that the living memory of World War II and the Holocaust is disappearing before our very eyes, Levi’s statement and the challenge it implies have taken center stage.