Remembering the Holocaust

A Perplexing Message on Holocaust Remembrance Day

On April 5th, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a group called Schoen Consulting released a study commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The results of the study drew a burst of national media attention for a week or two, but the flurry of conversation has already started to fade over the horizon of our 24-hour news cycle. What can this study tell us about the shape and scale of our cultural memory?

After conducting more than 1,350 interviews with a cross-section of the population, researchers found that only 11 percent of U.S. adults and about 20 percent of those between age 25 and 38 (millennials) have either not heard of, or profess only hazy knowledge of the holocaust. One third of adult respondents misstated the death toll by millions, believing that fewer than two million people lost their lives (the actual number exceeds six million.) 

Survivors of the holocaust are now in their mid-70s at the youngest, and their dwindling numbers reduce the possibility that any given American adult has heard their stories first hand. Each year, fewer American adults can report knowing a living survivor personally. This certainly has an impact on the personal reach of each individual story, but it doesn’t fully explain why a historic event of such magnitude is so rapidly vanishing from historical and cultural conversations.

At the same time, most respondents (68%) believe that anti-Semitism is on the rise, which correlates with a 57% increase in reported anti-Semitic incidents over the past year. Is there a causative factor linking these two events? (Do overlaps exist between those committing anti-Semitic acts and those who have not heard of the holocaust?) The study doesn’t measure this, but the possibility exists that such behavior gains a foothold when common knowledge of history becomes less common.

There are two clear reasons to push back against the blurring of our historical memory: knowledge quells toxic behavior and it prevents the repetition of terrible events. But keeping this knowledge alive appears to be easier said than done. What are the obstacles standing in the way? In other words, why is this blurring effect happening, and more urgently, why is it happening so fast?

It may be time for follow-up study, one that might get to the heart of this collective forgetting. Could it be that the subject is still too painful to discuss openly in some settings (such as classrooms and public forums)? Could it be that the trauma borne by first-hand survivors has been socially or culturally transferred to offspring who don’t have the tools to process it properly? Or could active forces at work within educational and cultural systems be pushing to suppress or pass on these discussions?

Whatever the causes may be, the results are apparent and unsettling. How can we overcome the mysterious obstacles that prevent us from taking stewardship of history, protecting it, and passing it on intact to those who come after us? The stakes are high, and the cyclical nature of history suggests that preserving and passing on this knowledge can protect those who follow us from terrible tragedy. But the task is delicate and painful, and only time can tell if we have the courage to take it upon ourselves and do it successfully.