Many younger people haven’t heard of Holocaust, so a renewed commitment from Canadians

Gaps in knowledge could be due to 'a lack of connection to the history as we get further away from it,' says Jody Spiegel, who works with Holocaust survivors to share their stories

As Holocaust Remembrance Day pays tribute to the victims of the genocide of the Jewish people during the Second World War on Friday, there is a renewed commitment by Canadians to become more educated on the subject. 

Despite the dismal findings of a 2018 survey — 22 per cent of Millennials and Gen Z hadn’t heard of or were not sure if they had heard of the Holocaust — the director of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program at the Azrieli Foundation Jody Spiegel is hopeful. 

The rise of antisemitism in Canada during the COVID-19 lockdown, paired with the “tremendous loss within the Holocaust survivor community over COVID because of age and illness,” has made communities and policymakers recognize the need for more Holocaust awareness and education, Spiegel told the National Post. 

The survey was released by the Claims Conference, a non-profit organization that secures compensation for Holocaust survivors around the world, and the Azrieli Foundation, which funds a variety of education-based initiatives, including Holocaust education. For the survey, 1,100 Canadians were interviewed. 

Dwindling awareness of the Holocaust is also being felt elsewhere. This week, the Claims Conference released a study focusing on The Netherlands, once home to Anne Frank, a young girl who kept a diary of her experience hiding from Nazis in an attic. The survey found 23 per cent of Dutch Millennials and Gen Z respondents believe the Holocaust was a myth or the number of those murdered was greatly exaggerated. 

Dara Solomon is the director of UJA Federation’s Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre and the executive director of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre. She was not involved in either of the surveys, but works closely with the Jewish community in Canada and has curated exhibits about Jewish history. 

She says she isn’t shocked by the lack of awareness of the Holocaust among younger Canadians. 

“There (has been) spotty Holocaust education in the past, meaning that some teachers do it really well, some don’t. Some are nervous to teach it so they completely avoid it,” said Solomon. 

“Even if it wasn’t taught in the school, it’s in movie theatres all the time, it’s in literature, so on one hand, I understand it, and on the other hand, it does seem surprising,” said Solomon. 

The survey also found that nearly two-thirds of Millennials and Gen Z — 62 per cent — did not know six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. More than half of Canadian Millennials — 52 per cent —  couldn’t name any of the 40,000 concentration camps, like Auschwitz, or ghettos, like the Warsaw Ghetto. 

The gaps in knowledge on the subject among the age group could be attributed to “a lack of connection to the history as we get further away from it,” said Spiegel. 

Another factor could be how the subject is taught — which has to be “rethought as the connections between generations changes.” 

Canadians did, however, show a desire for Holocaust education, with 82 per cent saying that students should learn about it in school. 

Currently, Ontario is the only province to make Holocaust education mandatory in elementary schools. Solomon stressed that for Grade 6 students, Holocaust education is not about scaring children. It’s about dissecting decisions people made throughout history, sparking conversations and understanding the human aspect of the Holocaust — like having students learn about gentiles who saved Jews or having them meet a Holocaust survivor. 

“Our work has been grounded in hearing from Holocaust survivors. We know that it’s been impactful,” said Solomon. 

“At our centre, sadly the era to hear firsthand from a Holocaust survivor is coming to an end. In the past five years, we have been preparing for that.” 

Holocaust survivors are getting older and reaching an age where they are dying of natural causes. 

Israel is home to 161,400 Holocaust survivors, the Times of Israel reported. More than 1,000 of them are over the age of 100 and their average age is 85 and a half years old. In Canada, there are currently more than 10,000 Holocaust survivors, according to the Azrieli Foundation. 

Part of setting up new ways to continue educating includes the Toronto Holocaust Museum, opening this spring. It will focus on telling Holocaust survivors’ stories and ensuring their testimonies are shared through immersive experiences. It will also be a memorial site for families of survivors. The museum will be located in the Sheff Family Building on UJA’s Sherman Campus. 

Another crucial reason to continue Holocaust education is the apparent rise of antisemitism in Canada, especially in schools. In January, Ottawa police said there was a 13 per cent increase in hate crimes in the city, with the Jewish community among the most victimized groups. Two Ottawa students were charged with hate crime offences after calling Jewish students into a room where a swastika was painted on the floor in December. One of the students also did a Nazi salute. 

More than half of Canadians — 57 per cent — believed there was antisemitism in Canada. But that number was slightly lower for Millennials, at 45 per cent. 

After the Second World War, 40,000 Holocaust survivors relocated to Canada to rebuild their lives. A movement to speak up more about the Holocaust was sparked in the 1980s, around the time Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel was distributing antisemitic pamphlets and James Keegstra was promoting Jewish hatred in his classrooms in Alberta. 

“Anti-Semitism is not new. It’s the oldest hatred and it didn’t start in the Holocaust and it didn’t end in 1945. But at no point since 1945 has it seemed more acute,” said Spiegel. 

It’s crucial to educate Canadians about the fullness of Jewish life so they can have a balanced perspective, she said. 

Solomon agreed that Holocaust education can be used as a tool to counter antisemitism, although it doesn’t mean that someone with such knowledge would not be susceptible to antisemitism. 

“When you have Kanye (West) with millions of followers spewing antisemitism, then it has the power to spread,” she said. 

“When you start having these conversations and break it down to the human behaviour — the way people acted during the Holocaust — there’s room for such an interesting conversation there about what individuals can do when they’re encountering hate and have them stand up against it.” 

In honour of Holocaust Remembrance Day — held on Jan. 27 to mark the day the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated in 1945 — Canadians can hear directly from survivors through an initiative between the Azrieli Foundation and Penguin Random House. 

“We’ve recorded the first-ever audiobooks voiced by Holocaust survivors,” said Spiegel, adding that they will be available to download for free until Feb. 6. 

“When you hear a voice, an authentic voice, of someone talking about the last time they saw their sister or going for hot chocolate in France with their mother before the war — these are real connections. We know that stories create connection.” 


Originally published in The National Post. View the original article here.