Judith Schumer’s parents survived the Holocaust, the systematic murders of European Jews by the Nazis, by leaving Poland and going to Lithuania at the start of World War II. They then got a visa from a Japanese diplomat and fled to Japan, where they waited out the war.
“My father was a journalist and when I was raised, the Holocaust story was always there,” said Schumer, who is chairperson of the Nevada Governor’s Advisory Council on Education Relating to the Holocaust. “…My family lost sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews on both parent’s side.”
Schumer isn’t shocked that a recent survey indicates many young Nevadans are unaware of the horror her parents and millions of others faced 80 years ago.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which seeks reparations and a return of Jewish property stolen by the Nazis, commissioned a nationwide survey of Holocaust knowledge and awareness among Millennial and Generation Z age groups. The survey firm of Schoen Cooperman conducted 1,000 interviews nationwide and 200 interviews in each state with adults ages 18 to 39 between Feb. 26 and March 28.
Nazis’ called extermination the ‘final solution’
Nationally, 63% of respondents – people younger than 40 — did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. They were killed because Adolph Hitler’s regime considered Jews subhuman and therefore undeserving of life.
In Nevada, 54% of the survey respondents did not know 6 million Jewish people died and 43% could not name even one of the 40,000 camps and ghettos that were part of the Nazis’ imprisonment and extermination system. In addition, 32% of Silver State respondents didn’t know the event was associated with World War II.
“I’m not surprised by these numbers because Holocaust education is not mandated in most states,” Schumer said. “In places where it is, it fulfills the mandate, but it certainly doesn’t explain to students what actually happened. It doesn’t tell about the history of anti-Semitism in Europe and how it came about.”
Holocaust education isn’t mandatory in Nevada
Nevada is not among the six states that mandate Holocaust education in public school curriculums, but since 2004 the Holocaust has been explicitly mentioned in the state’s social studies standards. Many individual schools use the “Diary of Anne Frank” in world history classes or as a part of reading lists. Resources for Nevada teachers also are available online.
The Holocaust occurred from the 1930s to the end of World War II in 1945. The Nazis practiced murder on an industrial scale. They killed 10 million people they considered “undesirables,” including Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people and the 6 million Jews. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the atrocities and the testimony of survivors, some people still do not accept that it happened or believe that it wasn’t as bad as history relates.
According to the survey, 56% of Nevadans said they had seen Holocaust denial or distortion on social media or elsewhere. In addition, 24% of respondents who believe the Holocaust happened thought the numbers of people who died were exaggerated, a myth, or were unsure of what is true.
Reports indicate anti-Semitism is increasing
James McSpadden, a scholar of modern European history and an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Holocaust denial narratives often are accepted by people who don’t want to believe authorities and historical accounts. The survey also revealed evidence of Holocaust distortion: 15% of Nevadans surveyed placed the blame for the Holocaust on the Jews themselves.
“The same thing happens when we study slavery in the United States,” McSpadden said. “People say, ‘oh, it’s not as bad,’ (as you think) or ‘there were good masters.’ People are trying to relativize it and minimize it.”
Jewish people were discriminated against then and bias against them continues, he said. A majority of those surveyed agreed: two-thirds of Nevada respondents believe there is anti-Semitism in the U.S. Facts bear that out. In 2019, anti-Semitic incidents increased by 12% and anti-Semitic assaults have increased by 56%, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Local incidents have been reported. In June in Carson City, a Jewish man was stabbed by a man who said, “heil Hitler” and raised his arm in a Nazi salute. At UNR, Swastikas have been found numerous times between 2017 and 2020. In one high-profile incident in May 2018, a UNR student gained national notoriety when he was photographed at a “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. During that gathering, marchers carrying torches chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
Schumer, of the governor’s advisory council, said ignorance of the Holocaust is a reason for the rise of anti-Semitism. One of the more dismaying findings of the survey, she and McSpadden pointed out, is that 13% of the young Nevadans surveyed thought neo-Nazi beliefs are acceptable. Such misperceptions exist even though Nevada has many programs, college courses and awareness events to help educate people about the Holocaust.
Educational programs available in the Silver State
The Governor’s Advisory Council, for example, works with school districts, the Anti-Defamation League, and other organizations to host teacher education, student programs, and events for the general public, Schumer said. The Washoe County library recently won the honor of having its Holocaust exhibition scheduled to be displayed next summer at the United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. The exhibit will focus what the U.S. government did and didn’t do to help Jewish people immigrate here to escape the Nazi terror.
Carla Trounson, a librarian and historian of the Shia Szrut Holocaust Studies Memorial Collection at the Northwest Branch of the Washoe County Library, said she hopes the exhibition will help shed light on that dark part of history so that people remember it and know it must never be repeated.
Yet, such programs and exhibits often are attended by people who already know something about the Holocaust and are interested in learning more. Educators face the challenge of attracting people who deny the history of the period or have distorted views about the Holocaust, Schumer said.
“The only weapon against ignorance is education,” she said. “Teach students about the Holocaust, teach teachers how to teach the Holocaust and combat the deniers by showing them it is a part of history.”