Pennsylvania ranked among the top 10 states in the country for Holocaust knowledge in a survey recently released by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Although the state does not have a Holocaust education mandate, it scored higher than several states where Holocaust education is mandated, including New York, New Jersey and California.
The Claims Conference stated that the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey released Sept. 16 is the first-ever 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z. Researchers calculated their “knowledge score” by using the percentage of millennials and Gen Z adults who met all three of the following criteria: have definitively heard about the Holocaust, can name at least one concentration camp, death camp or ghetto, and know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Even in states that performed relatively well, there were still large percentages of respondents who did not meet the criteria.
The organization reported that 63% of all national survey respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered, 36% thought that “2 million or fewer Jews” were killed during the Holocaust and 48% of national respondents could not name one of 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos.
Along with Pennsylvania, the states with the highest scores were Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Iowa and Montana.
The states with the lowest scores were Alaska, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
The survey has garnered mixed reactions among educators. Some think the data reflects real problems with Holocaust awareness among youth, while others find the methodology limited and alarmist.
Gretchen Skidmore, director of education initiatives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said the study’s exposure of overall nationwide gaps in Holocaust knowledge, as well as the amount of disinformation young adults are exposed to on social media, is cause for concern.
“Also alarming is the high percentage of respondents saying they believe Jews were responsible for the Holocaust, or that the Holocaust is a myth or exaggerated. And Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism, which is on the rise and dangerous,” she said. “As an institution that works with educators in all 50 states, it is from our experience very clear that for Holocaust education to be successful, there are certain conditions that are really important, like ongoing commitment from leaders, local school districts and the local community.”
Randi Boyette, senior associate regional director of education at Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia, said she was excited by the results of the survey in Pennsylvania.
“When I look at this, when I see that 80% of respondents have definitely heard about the Holocaust, that 89% see that the Jewish people were victims, but there’s so many others who were able to name other victim groups, that they had a lot of core basic knowledge about the Holocaust, when so many other states — even states that are mandated like Delaware, New York and Florida — are among the lowest, it actually made me feel very good,” she said.
Boyette worked on the advisory committee for Act 70, a bipartisan piece of legislation passed in 2014 that strongly recommended the teaching of Holocaust education in Pennsylvania schools and provided resources for teachers. She said Holocaust educators were asked to weigh in when the legislation was being crafted, which played a big role in strengthening Pennsylvania students’ Holocaust knowledge.
“I do want to give a particular shout out to Sally Flaherty, who worked for the Department of Education at the time,” Boyette said. “She ran the Act 70 Advisory Committee, and she was deeply committed to Holocaust education, and Holocaust, genocide, human rights violation, education in Pennsylvania, and very purposeful in working with the committee. The infrastructure provided by the Department of Education made a huge difference.”
That infrastructure included statewide teacher trainings on presenting content in age-appropriate ways and connecting the events of the Holocaust to other civil rights topics.
Josey Fisher, director of the Holocaust Oral History Archive and instructor in Holocaust and genocide studies at Gratz College, was also on the advisory committee for Act 70. She said the legislation focused on teacher preparedness and support.
“You can have a state that mandates Holocaust education but does not offer preparation or resources for teachers to study and to explore and to give them support so that when they go into the classroom they present the subject in the most appropriate way,” Fisher said. “Just because something’s being mandated doesn’t mean it’s done well.”
Boyette gave examples of Pennsylvania Holocaust education initiatives that predated Act 70, including Echoes & Reflections, an educational partnership among ADL, USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem, and the ADL’s Bearing Witness Program, a Holocaust education initiative specifically geared toward Catholic schools. She also cited the Jewish Community Relations Council’s work connecting students with survivors through its annual Youth Symposium on the Holocaust programs and its Survivor Speaker Bureau.
Writing in The Forward, Stephen Smith, executive director chair of the USC Shoah Foundation, criticized the study for using a narrow definition of Holocaust knowledge, downplaying the efficacy of Holocaust education and inciting fear.
“The Claims Conference survey defined ‘knowledge’ of the Holocaust as follows: a person has ‘definitely heard of the Holocaust’ (78% said they had), can name at least one concentration camp, death camp and ghetto (52% could name at least one), and knows that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust (37% did),” Smith wrote. “These are not unreasonable things to expect people to know. But it’s also a high bar to clear in order to say that someone has ‘knowledge’ of the Holocaust.
“The implication of this survey is that people are somewhat anti-Semitic because they do not know facts about the Holocaust, when in fact they just may not know specific details about history.”
Fisher said this was an important point, and that statistics may not always tell the whole story.
“I am not involved in statistical results. I want to know what’s going on in the classroom,” she said. “What are students learning? What should they be learning? How can we help teachers?”