Sept. 1, 2014, commemorates the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Poland. On that day in 1939, Germany launched the invasion of Poland, marking the beginning of hostilities in World War II. Sixty million people died in the conflict over the next six years, including 6 million Jews murdered in Hitler’s so-called “Final Solution.”
My dad was one of the lucky few to escape from Prague on the Kindertransport in August 1939 — only days before the invasion and the termination of the transports. He found safe harbor in London where, years later, he met his British bride. My mom turned 93 this month. She remembers meeting him like it was yesterday.
It wasn’t until they moved to Pasadena in 1945 that they discovered his mother had survived — having spent time in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
In my father’s last years, around the time I joined the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), he finally spoke of his and his mother’s experiences. Just last month, I came across a manuscript he had written about the history of Auschwitz. Needless to say, you can’t find a Jewish community professional more committed to Holocaust education for our schoolteachers than I am.
After working for the ADL for 12 years, it is hard to shock me. But I found it particularly chilling to learn from a recent survey of ours what a huge percentage of people across the globe have never heard of the Holocaust or believe it has been greatly exaggerated.
Over the past 75 years, a global movement has emerged to deny that the Holocaust ever took place. In response to the Holocaust deniers, various groups have made it their mission to retell the stories of the Holocaust, including documenting the atrocities with interviews of survivors. Holocaust museums such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust stand as a statement of American values, commitment to freedom at home and abroad, and rejection of tyranny against all peoples.
As time marches on, the population of Holocaust survivors wanes. Soon, historical evidence will be the only way to document the realities of the Holocaust for future generations.
This year, in an unprecedented survey of over 100 countries, the ADL measured anti-Semitic attitudes of a sample group representing over 5 billion people worldwide. The survey has gotten wide press for the finding that 26 percent of the world population harbors anti-Semitic attitudes. Less well publicized are the survey’s findings around Holocaust awareness. The study found that only 54 percent of those surveyed have heard of the Holocaust. Perhaps even more alarming, of those who have heard of the Holocaust, 32 percent believe it is either a myth or has been greatly exaggerated.
Another way to describe this finding is that only 33 percent of the 5 billion people represented in the survey have both heard of the Holocaust and believe it to have been accurately described by history.
There are decided regional differences within this survey. For example, in Western Europe, perhaps because of education programs in schools as well as personal stories from relatives, 94 percent of those surveyed have heard of the Holocaust. In Eastern Europe, where most of the atrocities occurred, 82 percent have heard of the Holocaust.
In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, there is more ignorance about the Holocaust and the Jewish people in general. In Asia, only 44 percent of the people have heard of the Holocaust, but add this to the fact that 91 percent of Asians have never met a Jewish person. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 24 percent of the people have heard of the Holocaust and 83 percent of sub-Saharan Africans have never met a Jewish person.
In the ADL survey, the area designated “MENA” (Middle East and North Africa) included most of the Arab world as well as Iran and Turkey. The overall measure of anti-Semitism in this region was a whopping 74 percent. Only 38 percent had ever heard of the Holocaust and, of those, 63 percent think it is a myth or an exaggeration.
However you read these numbers, it is clear that a huge percentage of the world population has a distorted or nonexistent view of what happened to the Jewish people in the six years after the Nazis invaded Poland and rampaged through Europe.
The survey data reveal that that it is imperative to continue to teach about the Holocaust. Sadly, we face another challenge meeting this imperative: One of the indicators of anti-Semitism is the stereotype — and roughly 30 percent of those surveyed worldwide think this — that “Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.”
As we recognize the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II, we need to renew our commitment to counteract anti-Semitism and teach about the Holocaust. Survivors of and witnesses to the Holocaust will not be with us forever. We must preserve the living memories of the Holocaust so that the world will never forget. My dad isn’t around anymore to tell the stories of his survival. But he has me, and I can ensure this ADL region will always offer Holocaust education programs. Plus, he has my mom, if you want to hear about the day they met.