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Survey finds lack of Holocaust knowledge among young Americans

A Holocaust survivor who lives in Maine, Edith Pagelson, says educators have to do their part to teach about this moment in history, to 'never forget.'

MAINE, USA — A recent national Holocaust knowledge and awareness survey by the Claims Conference found many younger Americans don't know much about the Holocaust. 

The data was collected in all 50 states, 200 interviews were conducted in each state targeted for Millennials and Gen Z, adults ages 18-39.

More than half of the people interviewed in Maine didn't know about how large the loss of life in concentration camps was, 6 million Jews and about 5 million non-jews that included Jehova witnesses, homosexuals, gypsies, people with disabilities, and others. 

One of the organizations in the state that is trying to address the increased lack of knowledge on the Holocaust and other genocides is the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta.

"Our approach is to work as partners with the teachers and provide them with the additional resources they need to help students take a deeper dive into these issues like the Holocaust and human rights," said David Greenham, interim executive director at the Holocaust and Human Right Center of Maine.

"This is something that it will never forget, you don't have to talk about it all the time but you can teach it, and that's what I did," said Edith Lucas Pagelson, a holocaust survivor.

Edith Pagelson lived in Germany with her family back in the 1930s when the Nazis slowly took control of most of Europe. Pagelson was sent along with her family to different concentration camps in Europe, including Auschwitz, Birkenau, Stuthoff, and Theresienstadt. 

"All this time I was with my mother, so we had each other," Pagelson said.

Pagelson survived and was released from Theresienstadt along with her mother when she was 15.

"We were half dead, and I had very bad frozen feet," added Pagelson.

Pagelson tells NEWS CENTER Maine it is a true miracle that she is alive, and she made it her mission to share her story to educate others and avoid this horrific moment in history to ever repeat itself. Pagelson moved to New York to meet with her sister who also survived, she has been living in Falmouth for the past 12 years.

"They have handed the mantle to the rest of us to keep those stories alive," Greenham said. He said the lessons from the Holocaust are still relevant today.

"How do we work with each other? How do we all live here together? And until we figure that out, I think the work never ends."

Some of the findings of the survey include:

  • Nationally, 48% could not name a single one of the more than 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos established during World War II.
  • 63% did not know six million Jews were murdered.  
  • 11% of respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust.
  • 49% have seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.
  • 64% believe that Holocaust education should be compulsory in school.

"We will continue to do that work through our exhibits through our educational programs, both here but also online and virtually," says Greenham. 

"People said, even friends.. you are here!  Now forget about it! That was the worst thing..how could you forget that?" added Pagelson.

The director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, Kelli Deveaux, tells us most Maine schools teach Holocaust studies as part of their curriculum, but it is not a requirement for Maine schools. She says, "all educators take seriously their responsibilities to help students know and understand past atrocities in the hope that we will not repeat them in the future."

The Maine DOE does provide multiple resources on topics and themes, and this includes genocide/Holocaust. You can find more, here.  

At Bangor schools, the interim superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg says middle School students have a quick exposure through US History and read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. 

"In the History Department students are exposed to an introduction to the Holocaust in their required US History class which is generally taken in either the 10th or 11th grade. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat cursory treatment and it is usually taught in conjunction with other material on World War Two. Students who take elective History Department classes in Current Issues in Global Studies, World History II, AP European History, and AP World History have other opportunities to learn about the Holocaust. All 9th-grade students read Elie Weisel's "Night" in their English class," said Harris-Smedberg.

Click here to read more about the Holocaust study findings in Maine and in other states.


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