Op-Ed: At my high school, the Holocaust is barely taught in history class. That scares me
“What’s the difference between a Jew and a Boy Scout?” a friend asked, with a broad grin on his face, as I sat down in my seventh-grade science class. “The Boy Scout comes back from camp!” He and everyone else at my table burst out laughing. Did my classmates even know what they were laughing about? Upset but unsure, I feigned a smile. I am ashamed to say I said nothing.
I grew up hearing about the Holocaust through the stories my grandfather, now 92, told about his perilous escape from fascist Italy as a teenager. He described the indifference he saw in the eyes of soldiers and civilians alike, the fear in his parents’ hushed voices as they planned to flee, how his heart pounded as he slid under a fence to reach Switzerland while holding his 3-year-old sister in his lap.
He escaped only hours before German soldiers showed up at his home in Milan to take his family to a concentration camp. It is a miracle that he survived and that I am here today. When I look into his eyes as he recalls his frantic getaway, I see him reliving the history my friend had so unabashedly joked about.
My generation is the last one that will be able to talk to Holocaust survivors and people who experienced life in Nazi Europe. As this crucial connection to the Holocaust fades, so will our collective memory of it. When there are no more living survivors, Holocaust denialism will become easier and more mainstream.
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I’m a junior in high school, and my formal education on this topic has consisted of one slide with a brief depiction of concentration camps and a short worksheet. If this is all I’ve been taught, it’s no surprise that Holocaust knowledge nationwide is severely lacking.
Almost 1 in 3 American adults say they believe that fewer than 2 million people were killed, and about 1 in 10 people aren’t sure the Holocaust even occurred. In a national survey, 11% of millennials and Gen Z report believing that Jews themselves created the Holocaust. To be clear: Two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population was murdered.
Eighty years later, antisemitism is on the rise. As a Jewish American, I’ve had to walk past security guards and a metal detector to enter my synagogue for fear of shootings. Swastikas have been painted on schools, Jewish centers, even a State Department elevator. When I recall the chants of “Jews will not replace us” by white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., it chills me to my core.
Earlier this school year, one of my teachers made an offhand comment insinuating that because I was Jewish, I must have money. Last spring, someone dropped an antisemitic note on my family’s doorstep that called government officials “Jew-inspired communists.” Accepting stereotypes and making threats have the potential to turn into far worse.
In middle school, I invited my grandfather to speak to my classmates about his experiences during the Holocaust. He spoke about his good luck: He’d been playing ball with friends when he drew the short straw and had to retrieve water for the group from home — and encountered his panicked family almost out the door. He talked about his parents’ decision to accept the help of Italian soldiers at the Swiss border, despite the risk of betrayal, and about his dreary and demoralizing life as a teenager in a refugee camp.
My peers listened with their mouths open, much like I do every time I hear these stories. After he finished, he had tears in his eyes. Then someone asked, “What were non-Jews doing to stop this?”
I’ve heard so little about the Holocaust during my years in school that if I didn’t have intimate personal connections to it, I could easily put it in the back of my mind. My 10th grade history class in Virginia spent weeks elaborating on the way of life of ancient Mesopotamians and less than a day on the Holocaust. It’s hard to fathom.
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One in 8 among millennials and Gen Z claims to have never heard of the Holocaust.
Virginia requires four years of high school history, and World History II is the only course that touches on the Holocaust. State guidelines for this class include teaching 61 broad topics — one of them folds the Holocaust into “examples of genocide in the 21st century.” It’s not enough.
Such gaps in education about the Holocaust make me afraid. I’m afraid that the collective ignorance and ongoing hatred of Jews will grow into something so much more, and it makes me fear for my loved ones and myself. I’m afraid that I’m seeing seeds of civil unrest, and educators aren’t doing enough to stop it.
When my friend made that joke in seventh grade, I said nothing because I didn’t want to be ostracized for ruining his “funny” moment. I now recognize that his comment stemmed from ignorance. Each generation needs to be taught about the events and ideology that allowed the Holocaust to occur so that it can be given an opportunity to understand the horrifying consequence of unchecked hate and ignorance.
We need to make sure the lessons of the Holocaust outlive the last survivors.
Gabriel Ascoli is a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va.
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