Holocaust history and the lost generation

Click photo to download. Caption: Jerry Amernic (left) interviews Toronto students about the Holocaust and World War II. What the students didn't know would, literally, fill a book. Credit: YouTube screenshot.
Click photo to download. Caption: Jerry Amernic (left) interviews Toronto students about the Holocaust and World War II. What the students didn't know would, literally, fill a book. Credit: YouTube screenshot.

Years ago, I got the idea for a novel about the last living survivor of the Holocaust. He would be a child survivor, born in 1939 as a hidden child in a Jewish ghetto, and would live there until his family went to Auschwitz. How a little boy managed to survive that place after losing his parents is the stuff of novels, and it is. It’s titled “The Last Witness,” and I published it last year.

Along with flashbacks showing how the worst memories of the protagonist’s life occurred before he was 5 years old, the book describes his contemporary struggle in the future, the year 2039, when he is 100 years old. The world of 2039 is one in which people are pretty ignorant and complacent as far as the Holocaust is concerned.

One publisher said he had to “suspend disbelief” with my premise that a generation down the road, people would know so little about the Holocaust, which prompted me to do a video on the subject. Last fall, just before Nov. 11, I interviewed university students in Toronto, asking them about the Holocaust and World War II. What they didn’t know would, literally, fill a book.

Here we are in April 2015, when Yom HaShoah (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day) is observed. It is a time to commemorate those who perished in the most heinous crime of human history, and today—never mind 2039—it seems that young people know next to nothing.

Most students I spoke to that afternoon in Toronto had no idea what happened at the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. They didn’t know who FDR and Churchill were. Hardly any could identify the Allies; one thought the Allies were Germany and Russia. The only student who knew how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust was Jewish himself. Another said, “I’ve heard of the Holocaust but I can’t explain it.”

We live in a time when anti-Semitism is growing throughout Europe, far-right and far-left political parties are on the rise, and thumb-your-nose-at-the-world carnage is being waged by the Islamic State terror group. Add what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine, and the specter of a new Cold War is upon us.

Do young people know about the Cold War? Do they know about the Armenian genocide, which this year is 100 years old? Do they know why Turkey continues to deny that it ever took place?

I have my doubts. All the students in my video were in university, and not one could tell me what The Final Solution was or who Joseph Mengele was. Never mind the affront to families of Holocaust survivors—what about the affront to veterans who stormed those Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944? Some of them are still alive. What would they think knowing that university kids today have no idea what happened on those blood-stained shores of France?

I don’t blame the students. It’s not their fault they never learned this in school because the curriculum is so lacking. But their school systems must assume some responsibility, as should society at large, since as a society we have let this generation down. We have failed them.

In writing my novel, I did a lot of research on the Holocaust and what people know about it. What I found isn’t pretty.

According to one Gallup poll conducted in the United States, less than half of those polled knew how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, while only 44 percent could identify Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka as death camps. In another poll, 70 percent of those surveyed said they knew what the Holocaust was—but that means 30 percent didn’t. Holocaust knowledge in all areas was higher among older people, and lower among younger people. According to a poll in the United Kingdom, 28 percent of respondents ages 18-29 said they didn’t know if the Holocaust happened. Then there was the poll commissioned by the University of Haifa that said 40.5 percent of Israeli Arabs—40.5 percent!—don’t believe the Holocaust ever occurred.

What are we to make of this? Holocaust denial aside, it’s clear we have spawned a generation that is ignorant of history, and let’s take it a step further. What is common knowledge today? Last fall a college in Texas surveyed students with questions about the U.S. Civil War. Most of them didn’t know when it occurred, who fought whom, or which side won. But everyone aced the question about TV’s Jersey Shore.

Edmund Burke said those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. If so, we are in trouble.

Jerry Amernic, a Canadian writer of fiction and non-fiction books, is the author of the 2014 Holocaust-themed novel “The Last Witness.” You can see his video with university students at 

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