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Azrieli: Canadians’ lack of knowledge of the Holocaust is shocking

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Throughout the world, narratives are used as tools to teach the next generation about history. In Judaism, we learn from the stories in the Torah. We read about Exodus at Pesach year after year, and we often rely on narratives to teach about the Holocaust.

The stories of survivors frequently form the backbone of school lesson plans about the Holocaust, whether it is through movies, memoirs or hearing survivors share their first-hand experiences with students. But is it enough?

On Yom ha-Shoah last year, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released the findings from a survey in the United States. Conducted by Schoen Consulting, it shed light on critical gaps both in awareness of basic historical facts and detailed knowledge of the Holocaust amongst American adults, and particularly young adults.

The U.S.-focused study made me want to know how Canada was doing, so the Azrieli Foundation commissioned Schoen Consulting to conduct a similar study here.

The results underscore clearly that there are serious gaps of knowledge in our country, as well.

Indeed, when we asked questions beyond the scope of basic Holocaust awareness – such as familiarity with the term itself, or that Adolf Hitler was the leader of the Nazi party – we found a troubling lack of knowledge.

We found that more than half (54 per cent) of Canadian adults did not know that six-million Jews were killed. The numbers were worse among millennials, 62 per cent of whom did not know this fact.

Less than half (43 per cent) of survey respondents could identify Poland – where 90 per cent of the Jewish population was killed by the Nazis – as a country in which the Holocaust took place. Meanwhile, nearly half of all Canadian adults could not name a single one of the over 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Second World War.

It would be an understatement to say that I found these results alarming.

The findings raise an existential question: how can we uphold the promise to “Never Forget,” if our citizens have already forgotten important details?

If the next generation does not know the details and context of the Nazi atrocities during the Second World War, how can we safely assume that our fellow Canadians will be able to identify and address such patterns if they reappear?

Positively, there is a clear consensus among Canadians when it comes to the importance of Holocaust education. Eighty-two per cent said that students should learn about the Holocaust in school, and another large majority (85 per cent) agree that teaching about it will ensure that genocide never happens again.

But for me, the most important takeaway from this study is that we in Canada need to rethink our approach to Holocaust education – and this includes the Jewish community.

Right now, although Holocaust education is included in each province’s curriculum, it is up to individual teachers to decide how they incorporate the subject into their classroom.

Within the Jewish day school system, in which students and teachers have traditionally been more acutely aware of the subject, the fact remains that it is up to the teacher to decide how to teach about the Holocaust.

The current approach – both in the public and Jewish day school systems – is diverse. The focus is often on commemoration, but our results show that commemoration and remembrance are not enough.

We in the Jewish community have been grappling with the fact that the population of first-hand witnesses, our survivors, is dwindling, but perhaps we are missing the point.

It is not enough to have survivors speak at schools. Students need to learn the details about what happened in Europe prior to, and during, the war. Without teaching the appropriate historical background and context, we are doing both students and survivors a disservice.

Having published the stories of nearly 90 Canadian Holocaust survivors in English and in French, the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program has become a world leader in the publication and distribution of survivor memoirs. In addition to undergoing a rigorous fact-checking and editorial process, our memoirs contain scholarly introductions. Our educational philosophy is that our memoirs can only be properly understood by teaching about their specific historical, geographical, sociological and political contexts. We work to help educators understand this and then connect educators and students across Canada to these first-hand accounts.

Our program is guided by the certainty that, when paired with a solid historical foundation, these stories told personally and intimately from the perspective of those who lived them can have an impact on readers that history texts do not. The diversity of the stories puts a face on what was lost and allows readers to grasp the enormity of what happened – one story at a time.

It starts with our teachers. Through increased professional development, we can empower teachers by expanding their knowledge, and in turn encourage them to take a historical approach, in addition to first-person accounts. We recently hosted a professional development day for teachers and were encouraged by how many of them, from both the public school system and Jewish day schools, participated. Teachers are thirsty for knowledge and effective resources.

As we approach the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we must shift the focus of our efforts in Holocaust education to empowering and supporting teachers, which includes allotting appropriate time and space in the curriculum and, most importantly, giving the teachers the tools they need.

Remembrance is not enough. Reflection is not enough. We must ensure that the promise to “Never Forget” is upheld for generations to come through comprehensive education.

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