A few months ago, in September of 2020, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted the first ever 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge of American Millennials (born 1981-1996) and Generation Z (born 1997-2012), and the results were alarming.
The Survey’s Results
Across the nation, the Conference found that many people in these generations lack knowledge of facts that are vital to Holocaust education. 63% of all respondents were not aware that six million Jews were murdered, while 36% falsely thought that “two million or fewer” Jews were killed during the Holocaust. 48% of respondents could also not name a single concentration camp or ghetto that existed during the Holocaust, though there were more than 40,000 in Europe at that time.
Perhaps the most distressing result the Conference found was that almost 20% of respondents believe that Jews caused the Holocaust.
The survey found that the states with the highest Holocaust Knowledge scores are Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Iowa, and Montana. The states with the lowest scores include Alaska, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
As for Oregon, 50% of Millennial and Gen Z respondents from the state could not name a concentration camp or ghetto; 35% did not know what Auschwitz was; 61% did not know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust; 29% thought two million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust; and 11% believe that Jews caused the Holocaust.
The Conference also surveyed Millennials and Gen Z for questions concerning the Holocaust and social media. In Oregon, 54% reported having seen Holocaust denial or distortion on social media or online, and 61% reported having seen Nazi symbols in their community and/or on social media in the past five years.
Despite some of the alarming results of the survey, the majority of respondents believe that it’s important to continue Holocaust education, partially so a similar event does not occur. Nationally, 80% believe it to be important to continue education of the Holocaust. In Oregon, 81% of respondents believe it’s important.
The State of Anti-Semitism and Oregon’s Response
In 2019, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States surged. In total, 2,107 incidents were reported, meaning that 2019 had the largest number of anti-Semitic incidents since the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) began collecting records in 1979.
Oregon grappled with the concept of Holocaust education in 2019. As a result of the surge in anti-Semitic incidents and reports of a lack of Holocaust knowledge among young people, the state passed Senate Bill 664 in May of that year, which made the education of the Holocaust and genocide a social studies requirement for Oregon students to meet before high school graduation.
The same year, The Corvallis Advocate discovered that the Corvallis School District did not have a consistent or formal curriculum on the Holocaust for its students.
Following 2019, 2020 continued to see anti-Semitism globally and nationally, with ADL reporting countless incidents throughout the year. In Oregon, seven anti-Semitic incidents were reported in 2020, the most recent taking place in Ashland on December 16 when at a virtual assembly for Ashland High School students, a participant drew swastikas and wrote “Heil Hitler” on a shared screen.
Corvallis School District’s Updated Curriculum
It can be inferred that this hatred will continue into 2021, especially if Holocaust education continues to be lacking. To ensure locally that this trend begins to fade, the Advocate asked the Corvallis School District for their updated Holocaust curriculum.
The curriculum begins in the district’s elementary schools and is outlined by different expectations and standards.
The first of these expectations/standards is “Develop students’ respect for cultural diversity and help students gain insight into the importance of the protection of international human rights for all people,” and is completed through Caring Schools Community Curriculum, which is a social and emotional learning program focused on building community, and the implementation of racial equity lessons, based on CSD’s social justice standards.
The second is “Stimulate students’ reflection on the roles and responsibilities of citizens in democratic societies to combat misinformation, indifference and discrimination through tools of resistance such as protest, reform and celebration,” also through the Caring Schools Community Curriculum.
The third is “Enable students to understand the ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping,” implemented again through racial equity lessons and CSD’s social justice standards.
The fourth is “Provide students with a foundation for examining the history of discrimination in this state,” implemented by 4th grade tribal history/shared history lessons using the Grand Ronde Tribal History Curriculum.
The last expectation/standard is “Explore the various mechanisms of transitional and restorative justice that help humanity move forward in the aftermath of genocide,” implemented again through the Caring Schools Community Curriculum with daily class meetings focused on community building for grades K-5.
For middle schoolers, Holocaust curriculum is taught in English Language Arts (ELA) classes. The education includes reading the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman, which depicts the author interviewing his father about his experience during the Holocaust as a Polish Jew; school visits from Holocaust survivors, as a part of a partnership with Oregon State University; and discussing materials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and from Facing History.
CSD’s high school curriculum includes education through ELA as well as through social studies. The ELA curriculum includes a number of accepted books on the Holocaust:
- Maus by Art Spiegelman
- The Book Thief by Markus Suzak
- Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
- Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
- The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
- The Courage to Care by Robert H. Gardner and produced by Carol Rittner
- Rhinoceros by Euegéne Ionesco
- The Harmonica by Tony Johnston
- Luba by Michelle Roehm McCann
- Erika’s Story by Ruth Vanderzee
- Fireflies in the Dark by Susan Goldman Rubin
- Willy & Max by Amy Littlesugar
- Nine Spoons by Marci Stillerman
The movie “As Seen Through These Eyes” (2008) is also part of the curriculum, as well as materials from the Shoah Foundation, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Injustice Follett Collection. “Photo stories” are also listed in the high school curriculum section under ELA, but this concept is not elaborated on in the document.
For social studies, high school students are asked to research the Holocaust and the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and “draw their own connections and identify patterns and causes consistent with all genocides.” After this analysis, they are to propose solutions to increase awareness and suggestions for the government to prevent future events.
Corvallis Rabbi Responds
So, is CSD’s Holocaust curriculum adequate? Rabbi Phillip Bressler of Beit Am in Corvallis said that it appears to be “quite standard,” but still has room for improvement – he also noted that he has empathy for teachers who must present material on the Holocaust.
“It’s not only emotionally intense to grapple with, but the story is amazingly complex and doing it justice within the confines of a regimented curriculum is nearly impossible,” he said. “We’re always faced with the question: ‘What are the important understandings I want students to take away from this?’ And we’re also always forced to accept something less than comprehensive.”
Rabbi Bressler applauded some of CSD’s curriculum materials.
“Once students reach an emotional and academic level where they can engage somewhat with the grim inhumanity and raw brutality of Nazi Germany and the Final Solution, they’re exposed to it through well-regarded works of literature, as well as resources from respected institutions like the U.S. Holocaust Museum,” he said. “I want to give particular plaudits for utilizing the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum – I’ve been trained in and taught it myself and can vouch for it being top notch.”
However, Rabbi Bressler expressed a few concerns with the curriculum, first noting that it’s lacking education on the treatment of the Holocaust as specifically a Jewish genocide.
“By that I mean that it wasn’t just a genocide that happened to be perpetrated against Jews, but a genocide brought about specifically because of its victims’ Jewishness, within the context of the history of persecution, oppression, and murder of Jews over the last 2,000 years precisely because of their Jewishness,” he said.
Rabbi Bressler also took issue with the high school level social studies assignment that requires students to compare and contrast the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. He said that he feels that the intent of this assignment is to deliberately generalize, which can give students useful understandings of social patterns between the two events. However, Rabbi Bressler said that this, as a Jew, leaves him feeling unseen.
“The Holocaust would not have unfolded as it did if a different religious or ethnic group had been singled out as the primary victims,” he said. “The reason there was a ‘Final Solution’ was because there was something called ‘The Jewish Question’ that the Nazi perpetrators thought needed solving. That’s not something that can be understood through cross-comparison with other events. It requires digging into the particular nature of Jews and Judaism as they existed in Europe at that time.”
Despite these issues, Rabbi Bressler felt it was necessary to note that the written-out curriculum consists of only raw materials, and the classrooms in which the materials are taught may bring out fruitful discussions and be helpful for students when fleshed out by teachers.
“But this depends entirely on the wherewithal of the specific teacher to work this important context in,” he said.
OSU Expert Responds
Paul Kopperman, a professor of history at Oregon State University, has been on the Holocaust Memorial Committee at OSU since 1987 and its chair since 1994, and has helped organize all 33 editions of the annual OSU Holocaust Memorial Week. Kopperman believes the curriculum put forward by CSD to be strong, but he did have a few material suggestions for the district. Specifically, he suggested adding the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry to the K-4 curriculum, as well as the film “Weapons of the Spirit” for middle and high schoolers.
While he has lived in Oregon, Kopperman has spoken on Holocaust-related topics at approximately two dozen schools, from Vernonia to Paisley. With his experience, he curated a “best-case scenario” for Holocaust education – if teachers were given the time and resources to cover the subject thoroughly.
His five points for this scenario include education on anti-Semitism, pre-war Nazi Germany, the Holocaust itself, major developments regarding Jewish people and the Holocaust since 1945, and other genocides and large-scale assaults on civilian populations.
Kopperman elaborated, “By the time a student graduates from high school, he or she should be aware that anti-Semitism, which has been called ‘the longest hatred,’ had existed centuries before the Holocaust and had prompted persecution of and frequent violence against Jews.”
In his own OSU course, Kopperman traces prejudice against Jews back to the Biblical period – however, for K-12, he thinks the coverage should begin in 1850 or at least no later than 1900.
He said, “It would be unfortunate if students came away from their studies thinking that the Holocaust was the work of one man or even of one society, when in fact it was a Europe-wide phenomenon that had a number of precursors.”
Covering Nazi Germany in the pre-war years is also important, according to Kopperman, and should specifically include “the barrage of propaganda that targeted the Jews and played on traditional negative stereotypes of them; Jews being stripped of their rights, banished from the schools, and dismissed from their jobs; random violence against Jews becoming national in the Crystal Night assault of November, 1938; increasingly in the late 1930’s, Jews being sent to concentration camps; and Jews emigrating from Germany in large numbers, though sometimes stymied by various obstacles, including a difficulty in finding countries that would accept them.”
For the Holocaust itself, Kopperman recommended, “Students should learn of life and death in the ghettos and camps; the experiences of Jews in them; how they coped and how some survived to liberation. Other topics associated with these years that should be examined include: the role that non-Germans played in the Final Solution; Allied (mainly U.S., U.K.) efforts to assist the Jews and why they are widely considered to have been too little, too late; Jewish armed resistance during the Holocaust; [and] other forms of Jewish ‘resistance.’”
The role of the Allied powers is important here for students to understand U.S. reactions to the war – the U.S. and the U.K., according to Kopperman, were both reluctant to admit Jewish refugees during both the years leading up to the Holocaust and during the Holocaust itself.
As for the major developments since 1945 that students should learn about, Kopperman highlighted “a steep decline in Antisemitism in the U.S., especially from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, as evidenced in public opinion polls; the spread of Holocaust education in the U.S. and Europe, particularly after 1980; the condemnation of Antisemitism by Christian churches, followed by rethinking of church doctrine and teachings about the Jews and a growing emphasis on Jewish-Christian dialog; beginning at the Nuremberg trials, the expansion of international law and judicial institutions to confront genocide and crimes against humanity; [and] a growing willingness in many societies to accept diversity, coupled with intolerance for intolerance.”
In addition, considering the surge in anti-Semitic hate crimes in recent years, Kopperman suggested students learn about this upswing and consider why it has been occurring.
He said that students should learn more about other genocides, like the Rwandan Genocide and the Cambodian Genocide, because “A danger in restricting Holocaust education to the Holocaust itself is that students may imagine that genocide was a one-time event and that they need not be concerned by the issue.”
Kopperman also noted that these best-case scenario points of education should not be examined in a single course or on a single level, and that schools and teachers should ultimately decide which topics are appropriate for various age groups.
Cheldelin Teacher Responds
Chris Thornburgh is a teacher at Cheldelin Middle School who has taught Holocaust units, and he said that the curriculum looks more like an outline than anything else.
“Getting students to deeply understand concepts like genocide, hatred, bigotry, and racism is a much more extensive process than making a few resources available to students,” Thornburgh said. “The real work lies in how to use/apply these resources, which takes time, resources, and collaboration. It’s always going to be beneficial for students to have discussions around the resources listed in the attached ‘curriculum’, but if I’m being honest, it’s quite skeletal.”
The Importance of Holocaust Education
Despite the varying responses among Rabbi Bressler, Kopperman, and Thornburgh, the resounding opinion seems to be that, though the curriculum is quite standard and definitely stronger than it was in 2019, it could still use some work. The benefits of perfecting CSD’s Holocaust curriculum are significant, especially considering the statistics which show us how much education on the subject has been lacking.
Kopperman noted multiple advantages to creating a sound and strong Holocaust curriculum, including that it can reduce anti-Semitism and increase acceptance of diversity while sensitizing students to the problem of genocide in the modern world, thus making them consider solutions to the genocide problem. It can also implore students to link extremist ideologies to genocide, as well as discourage them from embracing extremist ideologies and from generally “following the herd.” Finally, Holocaust education can empower students to reflect on humanity and propose solutions to large issues, while also allowing students to examine positive developments since the Holocaust.
Kopperman also added that Holocaust education gives educators the opportunity to be creative in their teaching.
Holocaust education, as we continue in a society uncertain of the future, is vital. As Elie Wiesel said, “To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice.”
By Cara Nixon