Is the Holocaust Already a Faded Memory?

By Jacob Dennen and Marc Mitchell

As I scrolled through my Instagram this past week, I saw only a couple people, all of them Jewish, posting about this week being the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a night when virtually any Jewish-owned property was attacked and destroyed in 1938 in Nazi Germany. Last year, my father, a lifelong student of Jewish heritage, shared a story about my relatives during this time. My great great grandfather and grandmother’s department store in Goppingen, Germany fell victim to Kristallnacht; later, they and multiple other relatives, fell victim to the Nazi Regime.

Never Forget, right?

One would think it would be difficult to forget the systematic persecution and murder of six million people solely based on their religion. And yet, that is exactly what is happening. According to a recent survey in January from the Pew Research Center, most people have heard of the Holocaust and have a vague idea of what it is but do not know much specific information about it. Another survey, conducted by the Claims Conference and released in September, found that 22% of millennials in the US had never heard of the Holocaust and 63% did not know that six million Jews were killed.

Naturally, this begs the question, how knowledgeable are Denison students? One would hope that the students at such a good liberal arts school would do much better than the average American. Fortunately, in the recent October survey we took four questions from the Pew survey so we can directly compare Denison’s results to those of Americans generally.

Before digging into the details about Denison’s knowledge of the Holocaust, let’s look at how people perceive the Holocaust. Almost 97% of people think that it happened and has been accurately described, but 3.4% of respondents think it was either exaggerated or that it did not happen. While it is disconcerting if even one person thinks this way, the overwhelming majority acknowledges this horrific series of events.

In order to gain a better understanding of people’s knowledge of the Holocaust, we asked them four questions about Nazi-created ghettos, the number of Jews killed, Hitler’s rise to power, and when it occurred. In the results below, more than 80% of Denison students can correctly say when the Holocaust happened and what Nazi-created ghettos were. When it comes to how many Jews were killed and how Hitler came to power though, Denisonians are much less knowledgeable – 66.6% know that 6 million Jews were killed, but 10% don’t know how many were killed, and another 10% underestimate the number.[1] Even fewer people know how Hitler came to power with only 62% of respondents answering correctly; 15% had no idea how he came to power and another 18% thought he overthrew the government.[2]

Taken as a whole, Denison students were able to answer 2.9 questions correctly on average. This is much better than the average American who only answered 2.2 questions correctly. But the average American is not a college student. When compared to other college graduates in that study, Denison students compare favorably in their Holocaust education: the average American college graduate answered 2.8 correctly while Denisonians answered 2.9 correctly.

Of course there is variation among students. Are the gaps due to one’s Denison education (such as one’s major)? Or are these differences the result of something else like group insularity? First, let’s look for differences across areas of academic study. You would think that the humanities and social sciences would have the highest scores because they include majors such as history and political science. Sure enough, the results below show that the social sciences and humanities are the only two academic disciplines to have an average score higher than three. But others are close. Next with a score of 2.94 are majors in interdisciplinary programs (e.g., international studies). Coming in last are the sciences (2.87), the arts (2.65), and the undecideds (2.43).

While this may imply an effect from one’s Denison education, when we split up the respondents between US citizens and international students, we can see that there is no gap for the American students (except for the undecideds). Instead, in several divisions, there are significant gaps between international and domestic students. This suggests that a Denison education has no effect (though see the humanities and interdisciplinary programs where there are no gaps), but instead it is the variability of students coming in and choosing different majors. One likely explanation is that international students (particularly those from Asia, obviously not those from Europe) may not have studied as much European history as American students.

We can also see that religion has an effect as well. Jews (3.5), atheists (3.3), and agnostics (3.2) are the only religious groups with scores above 3.0. These three groups have a statistically significant increase over all other religious groups except Muslims. Jews also, unsurprisingly, have a higher score than any demographic measured. Christians, others, and Muslims are next. It is also interesting to note that the followers of eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, have significantly lower knowledge scores than almost all followers of other religions.

While we can see the effect that religion has, you would think being around people of different religions would also have an impact. Typically, people who surround themselves with others that are just like themselves may not be very knowledgeable of others’ experiences and histories. Luckily, we are able to test this as we asked students to list the number of friends they had with a different religion. Looking at the results below, we can see that knowledge increases as one’s friend group diversifies. As one diversifies their inner circle, they tend to gain appreciation and acknowledgement of their friends’ past and everything that comes with it, including their identity and their identities’ history. There is a lot to be said for “spreading your horizons,” and one of the most impactful results is becoming more accepting and knowledgeable. By talking and living with people very different from me, I have learned a lot about different cultures and what people unlike me go through on a daily basis.

With an average score of 2.95 we can safely say that Denisonians are still pretty knowledgeable about the Holocaust, regardless of what factors affect them. And yet only 41% were able to answer every question correctly and one in every three students can not tell you how many people died or how Hitler came to power. This is disconcerting.

We are the last generation that will be alive at the same time as people who survived the Holocaust. It is our job to remember how many people died and how a leader like Adolf Hitler was able to come to power so that we can make sure nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again. It is up to us to acknowledge hate when we see it. It is up to us to actively speak against it. It is up to us to acknowledge when the “other” is being separated. It is up to us to learn about this disgraceful history to ensure it does not happen again. It is up to us to Never Forget…

Jacob Dennen is a senior majoring in Political Science and doing his senior research on antisemitism. When not in his room studying, you can see, and probably hear, him out on the tennis courts. If you don’t yet, make sure you go and follow the Denison tennis instagram pages (@denisonmtennis and @denisonwtennis).

Marc Mitchell is a junior majoring in Global Commerce with a focus in Health, Exercise, and Sports Studies. He is a proud member of the Denison Men’s Golf Team, make sure you go follow their account as well on Instagram and Twitter (@denisongolf).


Notes

  1. It is important to note that in addition to the six million Jews killed, there were five million more deaths that included Roma, homosexuals, Poles, and many other groups deemed “other” resulting in a total of eleven million deaths.
  2. It is worth noting that Hitler unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the government in 1923 in what has been called the Beer Hall Putsch, after which Hitler was found guilty of treason and served 5 years in prison.

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