Just a few days ago, on April 12, the world commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Much of the news this year focused on a new national survey, conducted by Schoen Consulting for the Claims Conference, to assess just how much Americans, especially young Americans, know about the Holocaust today.
The results were disheartening and disturbing. People are beginning to forget.
But as I reviewed the survey, I found myself remembering another time and place when an old man who had suffered much passed on his story, and with it a special responsibility to a teenage boy who had suffered not at all. That boy was me.
I called him — always — Mr. Michele. I never knew his first name. He owned a popular dry cleaning shop on the Upper West Side of New York where I grew up, and for three years, Mr. Michele was my boss. Every day after school, I delivered cleaning to a raft of his clients, from Robert Oppenheimer and other notables to the profs at Columbia just across the street.
He and I had a typical employee-employer relationship, but we couldn’t have been more different. I was a teenager with all the trials and tribulations that brings, and he was a quiet and serious man, very businesslike with a remarkable sense of responsibility.
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And he had numbers tattooed on his arm.
I never asked about his past. He didn’t talk about it, but I knew what those numbers meant, having lost distant family to the Holocaust.
When I was 17, I moved to Ohio for my senior year. I gave Mr. Michele notice, and on my last day, something quite extraordinary happened that stays with me even now. I returned from my final deliveries, and as I walked back into the store, Mr. Michele sat in a chair on one side of the counter. Another had been placed directly across, and there, sitting in front of each chair, was a small glass of scotch.
He asked me to join him, and for the next hour, Mr. Michele told me his story. He talked to me about the time he spent in the camp, the loss of family and freedom, and how important it was that I know what had happened to him and so many others. That I should never forget.
All these years later, I now understand that when Mr. Michele decided to tell me about his life, he didn’t really mean it to be about him but about the millions who didn’t survive. He wanted me to remember the scale and the meaning of the Holocaust.
The specifics of his life were less important to him than the context it would give me. He did this so that one day, if the time ever came again — if the world needed to be reminded of the cost to our humanity when we do nothing in the face of evil — I would be armed with the truth of his story.
Perhaps that time has come.
This is what the Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study found: One in 10 Americans and over one-fifth of millennials (22 percent) either haven’t heard of the Holocaust or aren’t sure if they have heard of it. Over 40 percent of those responding did not know what Auschwitz was, while 66 percent of millennials were unable to identify this symbol of the Holocaust.
45 percent of all U.S. adults couldn’t name a concentration camp, although there were more than 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe. Even though at least 3 million Polish Jews were killed, only 37 percent could identify Poland as a country where the Holocaust took place.
The study did have some encouraging findings as well. Ninety-three percent of people believe that “all students should learn about the Holocaust in school.”
And there’s the disconnect. Half the respondents (52 percent) said lessons about the Holocaust are mostly accurate but could be better. I would suggest a lot better.
When we see data like this, it says something is terribly wrong with history education in America. It shows us why a liberal arts education still matters — not just to make sure individuals are literate in history, which is important, but to ensure an informed electorate with the perspective and context to understand the outcome of remaining silent in the face of oppression.
The issue may not be how we are teaching history as much as what we are teaching and calling history.
There is only so much time in a classroom, so many pages in a history book. When a history text gives significantly more space to “The Disco Generation” or Steven Spielberg than to the Apollo mission to the moon, something’s wrong. That was my son’s 11th grade American history book.
In some ways, the criticism of today’s news coverage applies to the teaching of history as well. How media covers news is important, but just as important are the editorial decisions that define what is news, what the public gets to see and hear.
The same kind of editorial decision-making that shapes news coverage is not dissimilar from the choices made by school boards or textbook publishers or university professors whose curricula and content decisions shape young minds and, de facto, the future.
The Holocaust survey should be a wake-up call for everyone concerned that the “past can be prologue.” It was for me.
This column is for you, Mr. Michele. We won’t forget.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich.