Home Perspectives Opinions From Yoni’s Desk: The muddled state of Holocaust education

From Yoni’s Desk: The muddled state of Holocaust education

A survivor points to names at a Holocaust memorial site FILE PHOTO
A survivor points to names at a Holocaust memorial site (FILE PHOTO)

A couple of months ago, the model, cookbook author, and social media starlet Chrissy Teigen revealed a new tattoo to her nearly 28 million Instagram followers. The design featured a set of numbers running down the inside of her forearm, corresponding to the birthdays of her husband and children. But some viewers saw something different: “Yikes,” wrote one, “really strong Holocaust vibes.” “Should have thought this one through,” another scolded. “Is anyone else a little bothered by the fact that she got a series of numbers on her forearm?” someone wondered aloud, “Is the Holocaust really that far removed from our reality? Anyone??”

It’s a question that haunts Jews the world over, including here in Canada where so many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents arrived to rebuild their shattered lives after the Shoah. As we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, though, the answer seems particularly unclear, perhaps more so than at any moment in the last three-quarters of a century.

How did we get to this point? Certainly not for lack of effort to educate the world about the horrors of the Shoah. In many ways, Holocaust education and awareness has never been more widespread and robust. The testaments to this reality appear in these pages on a regular basis: schools are working with Holocaust groups (the Toronto District School Board, for example, is dispersing almost 18,000 copies of the book Hana’s Suitcase to every Grade 6 student); cities, like Richmond, B.C., are increasingly adopting Holocaust remembrance initiatives; survivors continue to be honoured for their courage.


This is not only happening in Canada, of course. In England, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, has just revealed a set of portraits of Holocaust survivors and their families, photographed recently at Kensington Palace. They were some of the most “life-affirming people I’ve ever met,” she said. Meanwhile in Germany last week, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas issued a warning that anti-Semitism has become “a daily occurrence” for the country’s Jews, leading nearly half of them to say they are considering leaving for good.

And yet, study after study indicates that Holocaust awareness and knowledge are languishing. A groundbreaking poll commissioned by the Azrieli Foundation and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, revealed exactly one year ago in The CJN, showed just how shockingly bad the situation is, with more than half of Canadians – and two-thirds of young people – not knowing that six million Jews died in the Shoah. Over a quarter of Canadians aged 18-34 who were surveyed believed less than two million were actually killed. “As it stands now, as a society, we are not preparing the next generation to learn from the past,” Azrieli Foundation CEO Naomi Azrieli said in reaction. Indeed, the study indicated that almost six in 10 Canadians say fewer people care about the Holocaust now than they used to.

Some say (including in these pages in recent weeks) that Holocaust education has lost the plot – that a nightmare scenario unique to the Jewish people has been universalized in order to teach young people about society’s ills writ large, as opposed to the specific Jewish suffering it engendered, and continues to engender. Even so, you would like to think that the sheer magnitude of Shoah study would rub off. That it clearly has not may very well have something to do with how we’ve gone about trying to get the message across. But even so, it says much more about the people who haven’t received it. Either way, it’s our continuing challenge to get the point across, especially when it comes to young people. 

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