In the midst of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, a new poll suggests a depressing – some may say shocking – fact: more than half of Canadians and nearly two-thirds of young people in this country do not know that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Putting a positive spin on the results, the firm that conducted the poll, Schoen Consulting in New York, called the findings “largely positive,” but said that they highlight “critical gaps” in knowledge, especially among younger people.
The Toronto-based Azrieli Foundation, one of two organizations for which the poll was conducted, used stronger language.
“I was shocked and disappointed to see the Canadian results,” said the foundation’s chair and CEO, Naomi Azrieli, in a statement. “Clearly there are gaps in our educational system that must be filled because, as it stands now, as a society, we are not preparing the next generation to learn from the past.”
Julius Berman, president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, the other organization for which the study was carried out, sounded similar tones of alarm: “Here we have yet another study showing that Holocaust education falls woefully short, and we must work together to correct this global issue.”
The poll’s results closely mirror those found in a similar study conducted by Schoen in the United States in April.
The Canadian poll surveyed 1,100 adults online and via telephone in September.
Its major findings are:
- more than half – 54 per cent – of all respondents did not know that six-million Jews perished in the Holocaust; among millennials and members of generation Z (aged 18 to 34), it was 62 per cent;
- 15 per cent of Canadian adults have not heard of, or are not sure if they have heard of, the Holocaust; while the figure for the same question rose to 22 per cent for millennials and generation Z;
- more than half of millennials – 52 per cent – cannot name a single concentration camp or war-era Jewish ghetto;
- 23 per cent of Canadians believe that “substantially” fewer than six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, while 24 per cent are unsure of how many were killed; approximately one-quarter think that fewer than two million died; and
- nearly six out of 10 Canadians say fewer people care about the Holocaust than they used to.
The study suggests that most Canadian adults (81 per cent) know that the Holocaust took place in Germany, yet just 43 per cent of all respondents identified Poland – where 90 per cent of the Jewish population perished – as a country where the Holocaust occurred.
Only 28 per cent of Canadians could identify Austria and France as countries in which the Holocaust took place. Even fewer (23 per cent) could identify the Netherlands, which, the study points out, the Canadian army helped liberate.
Those “critical gaps” in knowledge extend to important place names as well. The study notes that there were more than 40,000 Nazi camps and ghettos during the Holocaust, yet nearly half of all Canadians (49 per cent) and 52 per cent of millennials cannot name even one. The figure in the American study was 45 per cent of all respondents.
And while there is “broad familiarity” with Holocaust figures like Adolf Hitler (94 per cent of responders know the name), Anne Frank (76 per cent) and Oskar Schindler (55 per cent) among all Canadians, those aged 18 to 30 have a “limited” familiarity with key Nazi perpetrators like Heinrich Himmler (38 per cent), Joseph Goebbels (36 per cent) and Adolf Eichmann (37 per cent). Elie Wiesel, the survivor icon and Nobel laureate, was familiar to 28 per cent of young people, but only to 23 per cent of all Canadians.
Furthermore, the poll found “a striking lack of awareness” of Canada’s war-era immigration policy. One-third of respondents believe Canada had an open immigration policy for Jewish refugees, while 37 per cent of those surveyed did not know what Canada’s policy was.
The findings also cite “a substantial lack of personal connections” to the Holocaust, as most Canadians (89 per cent) have never visited a Holocaust museum and 69 per cent do not know, or know of, a Holocaust survivor.
As for anti-Semitism in Canada, 57 per cent of all Canadians say it exists, but only 45 per cent of 18-to-30 year olds say the same.
Despite some disheartening numbers, the poll has “encouraging” findings on the need for Holocaust education. A substantial majority of Canadian adults (82 per cent) believe all students should learn about the Holocaust in school and 85 per cent say it’s important to keep teaching about the Holocaust, to prevent it from reoccurring. In the same vein, 43 per cent of all Canadians and 55 per cent of young people agree that instruction in the Holocaust is “mostly historically accurate but could be better.”
While nearly half of Canadians think that something like the Holocaust could happen in other Western democracies today, only 27 per cent believe something like the Holocaust could happen in Canada.
Among the poll’s key findings when it comes to the need for education is that the less Canadians know about the Holocaust, the more likely they are to tolerate neo-Nazi views: the ratio of those who believe neo-Nazi views are acceptable is 16 per cent among those who have never heard of the Holocaust, seven per cent of those who are aware of it and four per cent of those with detailed Holocaust knowledge.
A task force of Holocaust survivors, representatives from Holocaust museums, educational institutions and non-profits dealing with Holocaust education helped develop the survey questions.
The poll’s results underline the ongoing need for Holocaust education across Canada, said Rome Fox, the acting executive director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
“As anti-Semitism, racism and genocides persist, engaging with the Holocaust and its lessons remains relevant for students and for all citizens,” Fox told The CJN in an email.
Fox said the study’s results “are not shocking, but very concerning.” She pointed out that in Canada, Holocaust education is not mandatory in public schools.
“Therefore, we rely on teachers and educators to choose to include the Shoah in their lessons,” said Fox. “It is imperative that every effort is made to reach out to students and teachers and provide opportunities to learn about the Holocaust.”
Vera Schiff, a Holocaust survivor speaker at Toronto’s Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, said: “This is a new era in Holocaust education. Canada is a diverse, multicultural country and we need to adapt our methods to different audiences and stimulate their interest. We cannot focus solely on the numbers of victims, although that is an important aspect to the Holocaust. We need to capitalize on the intellectual curiosity of the millennials and move beyond a victim-centred approach to one that allows them to discover the full range of experiences.”
Dara Solomon, executive director of the Neuberger Centre, said “we are disappointed to hear the major findings of this recent poll on Canadian’s awareness of the Holocaust. These results are exacerbated by both the painful reality that we are coming to the end of the era when students will be able to hear directly from a Holocaust survivor and an unfortunate rising threat of global anti-Semitism.
“Despite gaps in specific knowledge or a deep understanding of the Holocaust, it appears that there is enough general awareness to provide an important opportunity for further education,” Solomon said.
Adam Minsky, president and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said that as “heartbreaking as we find the results of the survey to be, it is important to note that where robust Holocaust education exists, so too does a broader understanding of the legacy of the Holocaust and the lessons it teaches about the dangers of hatred and anti-Semitism. UJA Federation’s Neuberger Centre has taught generations of children, as well as men and women in politics, law enforcement, education and other fields, how the promotion of prejudice and hatred can lead to violence. We must all come together to continue to teach this vital lesson.”
Prof. Doris Bergen, who holds the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto, called the numbers “sobering” and “a powerful reminder to all of us involved in Holocaust research and education that we still have work to do. When I think about the hundreds of students – the vast majority of them not Jewish- who fill my classes on the Holocaust year after year, I am also reassured that lack of knowledge does not necessarily mean people don’t care.”