Young Israelis Actually Know Very Little About the Holocaust. Here’s Why

Photo courtesy March of the Living

By Judy Maltz

On a tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, about a dozen young soldiers gather near an exhibit devoted to the Wannsee Conference, where in January 1942 Nazi officials coordinated their plans to kill all of Europe’s Jews.

“You’ve all heard of Adolf Eichmann, haven’t you?” asks the guide, pointing to a photo of the most recognizable face on the exhibit wall.

“Sounds familiar,” one soldier responds.

“Wasn’t he that doctor?” asks another.

The guide at first appears puzzled but then makes the connection. “Oh, you must be thinking of Josef Mengele,” she says, referring to the doctor who conducted human experiments at Auschwitz. “That was someone else.”

If this guide is shocked that graduates of the Israeli education system might not immediately recognize the name Adolf Eichmann – one of the key executioners of the Final Solution who was later kidnapped by Israel and sentenced to death in a world-famous trial – she doesn’t show it.

Nor do her eyes pop out when another soldier is shocked when hearing that the Nazis didn’t spare children. After all, 1 million Jewish children were murdered during the Holocaust.

Right behind them, another guide is weaving in and out of the exhibit halls with a group of Israeli high school students. They pause at the display of six-pointed Stars of David that Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule. Clearly misinformed about whom the Nazis targeted, one student suggests that the purpose of this policy was to single out religious Jews.

“No,” the guide corrects her. “All Jews had to wear the star, even Jews who had converted to Christianity.”

Earlier this month, Israelis were outraged when White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed that Adolf Hitler, who gassed millions of Jews, never used chemical weapons. How, they wondered, could anyone be so ignorant about the Holocaust?

Yet over two days observing high school students and soldiers on tours of Yad Vashem, it was not always obvious to a Haaretz reporter that young Israelis are that much more knowledgeable about this devastating period in modern Jewish history.

True, some groups were clearly better versed than others. But more often than not, guides’ questions about key events, names, places and terms (“What happened on Kristallnacht?” “What was the Kindertransport?” “Who were the Sonderkommandos?”) were met with blank stares – in a country founded on the ashes of the Holocaust and home to the largest community of survivors in the world.

“What people don’t realize is that Holocaust awareness is very different from Holocaust knowledge, and one of the biggest challenges for us is narrowing the gap between them,” says Eyal Kaminka, director of the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. “Just because the Holocaust seems to be everywhere in the public sphere in Israel doesn’t mean people are widely educated about it.”

In years past, he notes, it was common for Israeli high school students to visit Yad Vashem after completing a basic unit of study on the Holocaust. “Nowadays, we’ve been seeing that more and more groups need to get the basic story from us because they are simply not coming with it,” Kaminka says.

Trips to Poland

Nili Keren, a Holocaust researcher and retired lecturer at the Kibbutzim College of Education, says she’s often shocked at the level of ignorance among young Israelis. Keren, whose scholarship focuses on Holocaust education in Israel, believes that many schools have grown overly reliant on Yad Vashem and institutions like it to relieve them of the responsibility to teach the subject properly.

“Spending four hours in Yad Vashem isn’t going to help if these kids don’t have the basics,” she says. “These institutions can’t serve as substitutes for the classroom.”

Almost all young Israelis visit Yad Vashem during high school, typically in 11th or 12th grade. The visits usually precede their trips to the concentration camps in Poland, which over the past 25 years have become almost a rite of passage despite the controversy surrounding their high costs, emotional effects and often very nationalist message.

Michal Rosolio has been leading high school trips to Poland for more than five years. “Today, I find myself in a situation in which there are bright kids who don’t know some of the basic milestones of the Holocaust, like when Germany invaded the Soviet Union,” she says.

“So even though the kids are very affected by these trips and they cry a lot on them, when it comes to their actual knowledge about what happened, there are huge gaps. It would seem to me that if the Israeli educational system feels it’s so important for them to spend all this money on these trips to Poland, they should at least make sure these kids are well prepared and know the material when they come.”

An approach to Holocaust education that prioritizes the emotional and experiential over basic facts and figures is partly responsible, according to Keren. “There’s this idea that it’s more important what the youngsters feel than what they know,” she says.

The trips to Poland, where students often drape themselves in Israeli flags as they march through Auschwitz crying, are a key facet of this approach, she notes.

“When they return from Poland, they all know to say that now they understand why it’s so important to have a strong Jewish state to protect them,” Keren says. “But how much knowledge they bring back with them about what happened during the Holocaust – that’s another question.”

Others blame a decision by the Education Ministry several years ago, as part of a broader reform, to pull the high school unit on Holocaust studies out of the standardized national exam in history. Behind this decision was an idea that there was something almost inappropriate about testing Jewish youngsters on their knowledge of the Holocaust.

The Education Ministry declined to comment for this article.

In any event, advocates of the move several years ago argued that most students tend to forget everything they’ve memorized for a test the day after.

The Holocaustfilm option

So rather than rely on standardized national exams, schools are now encouraged to have their students embark on Holocaust projects that focus on experiential learning. Naturally, many kids gravitate toward subjects that resonate with them personally – like their own family history during the Holocaust or the story of their family’s hometown. The upshot, according to teachers and Holocaust educators familiar with the new curriculum, is that many young Israelis have lost sight of the bigger picture surrounding the Holocaust.

“When you’ve done away with standardized tests, which is not necessarily a bad thing, the big challenge becomes making sure these kids still understand the broader context in which the events took place,” notes an official at a center for Holocaust education in Israel who asked not to be named so as not to damage his relations with the Education Ministry. “So while it’s a great idea to encourage students to deepen their knowledge and pursue more meaningful learning, it’s also important to make sure their knowledge of the Holocaust expands beyond the details of what transpired in their particular family’s hometown.”

The official, who interacts regularly with young Israelis visiting his Holocaust center, says no study has examined the effects of the curriculum changes. “My gut feeling tells me though that they know less today about the Holocaust than they used to,” he says.

Rosolio, who leads the high school trips to Poland, has drawn similar conclusions. “Anyone who knows anything about Israeli youngsters should know that if you don’t test them, they’re not going to study,” she says. “From what I’ve seen, since the Education Ministry introduced this reform, the level of knowledge about the Holocaust is not what is was.”

With teachers no longer under pressure to prep their students for external exams, many take the easy way out and use class time to show films on the Holocaust – not always with desirable results. As Keren notes: “The kids watch ‘Schindler’s List,’ and after that, many of them think they know everything there is to know about the Holocaust.”

Ron, who asked that his full name not be published because Israeli teachers aren’t allowed to speak with the press, recently accompanied students from his high school on their trip to Poland. “It became very clear to me there that they lack basic knowledge,” he says. “Many of them have never heard of the Wannsee Conference, for example, or know the difference between Auschwitz and Treblinka.”

A teacher of 11th-grade history and civics, Ron blames the Education Ministry. “Of all the subjects to remove from the external exam, they had to pick the Shoah? They couldn’t have pulled out something less critical?”