As the news broke recently, my phone started lighting up with messages and texts decrying the ignorance of our nation’s young people. In case you missed it, a study found that fully 36% of Millennials and Gen Z believe that fewer than 2 million Jews died in the Holocaust.
The callers and the texters were right. It is depressing that so many young people lack basic information about the Shoah. It is an indictment of our educational system. And it makes one fear that the lessons of the Holocaust may someday be forgotten and, G-d forbid, the horrors may someday be repeated.
Still, I couldn’t help but smile, just a little bit.
You see, as Curator and Director of Education for the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center (HMLC) I knew that two years ago, when the same question was asked of America’s youth, the figure had been 41%. In those 5 percentage points, I find hope. It’s a small shift, but an important one. While the figure is still far too high, it is moving in the right direction.
Holocaust education is the key. It motivates young people to become more open and thoughtful. According to Echoes & Reflections, a partnership program of Anti-Defamation League, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem, students with Holocaust education report “having greater knowledge about the Holocaust than their peers and understand its value.”
Survivor testimony is a particularly effective tool, something we’ve known for years. Our oral history project has brought first-hand survivor testimony to homes and classrooms across the region. The same study also found that students with Holocaust education maintain “more pluralistic attitudes” and are more open to differing viewpoints than their peers. This, too, is encouraging news.
We have seen those findings play out among the thousands of visitors who enter our museum or use our resources. Our museum may be small, but we host over 30,000 visitors each year. Young people who enter the HMLC receive a thorough lesson in the history of the Holocaust. They often respond with thoughtful questions and poignant reflections.
Visiting the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center is a powerful experience for students. After completing a tour, many are emboldened to apply what they’ve learned in their schools and communities. Even amidst a global pandemic and economic uncertainty, we will continue to provide students, teachers and the broader community the crucial tools necessary to create positive change in St. Louis and the surrounding region.
We have met this challenge directly and successfully for the 25-year history of the HMLC. As time passes and we grow further away from the events of the Holocaust, it is an enduring challenge to educate young people about its causes and lessons.
Still, I can’t help but be encouraged because I also know that soon rising on the corner of Lindbergh and Schuetz, with the community’s help, will be a new museum, one designed to educate new generations about the lessons of the Holocaust. Our exciting new $21 million expansion will create a world-class facility that will enable us to supply state-of-the-art Holocaust education resources to visitors and facilitate critical conversations in our community.
This most-recent survey documents a small step in the right direction and reinforces our decades-long mission to ensure the next generation knows what it really means to say, “Never Again.”
Dan Reich is the Curator & Director of Education for the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center.