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For decades after the end of World War II, the Holocaust conjured up horrifying images and memories. Names like Auschwitz and Dachau were stinging reminders of a genocide that sought to eliminate the Jewish population in Europe. “Never again,” was both a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust and an admonition to never again allow such hatred to take root.
But now, 75 year after the end of the war, memories of the Holocaust are fading. A recent study found that nearly two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 did not know the scope of the Holocaust and only half could name a single concentration camp or ghetto. More than a third thought fewer than 2 million Jews were killed (the actual number is 6 million, about two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe at the time) and more than half did not know of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp where more than 1 million men, women and children were murdered.
Nearly half of those surveyed by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, had seen Holocaust denial or distortion of social media and 30 percent had seen Nazi symbols showing the prevelance of efforts to erase or downplay the Holocaust and to glorify Nazis. The conference, which seeks to provide a measure of justice to Holocaust survivors, distributes financial compensation to Holocaust victims, recovers art stolen by the Nazis and provides social services to Holocaust survivors.
Despite their general lack of knowledge, 59 percent of survey respondents said they believed something like the Holocaust, which began with propaganda and systemized discrimination against homosexuals, people with mental and physical disabilities, gypsies and others, including Jews, who were deemed a threat to the “German race,” could happen again.
As the horrors of the Holocaust fade, there are troubling signs that its lessons are being forgotten.
In America, Jews account for about 2 percent of the population. Yet, nearly 60 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes were targeted at Jews, according to the latest figures from the FBI. There were more hate crimes targeting Jews in 2018 than were directed at all other religious groups combined.
In 2018, there were 24 hate crime murders, the highest since the FBI began tracking and reporting on hate crimes in 1991. Nearly half of those murders were the result of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh in October 2018, during which 11 Jews were killed by an alleged anti-Semitic shooter.
Overall, religious hate crimes are decreasing but anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise.
In August in Waldo, a swastika was painted over a sign supporting Black Lives Matter. In Bangor in June, a swastika was painted on the street outside the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Maine’s oldest. The synagogue and Beth Abraham were vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti in 2012 as well.
And in political rhetoric, anti-Semitism, whether overt or not, remains too prevelant.
These events and the survey show the need for more and more extensive education about the Holocaust. In these worrisome numbers, there is a bright spot for Maine. It was among the top four states in terms of knowledge about the Holocaust.
In Maine, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center was founded 35 years ago by Gerda Haas, a survivor, with a mission of bringing Holocaust education to Maine schools. Annual teacher trainings, school visits to the center and its exhibits and survivor visits to school have made a difference.
Despite this ongoing work and the relatively high knowledge about the Holocaust compared to other states, Maine can still do more. A bill that remains before the Legislature would, as amended, make education about genocide, including the Holocaust, mandatory in Maine schools. Fifteen states, including New Hampshire, already require such education. Maine should join them.
Through education, people can better draw connections between the hate symbols they see, slurs and jokes they hear and violence, said Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the center, who is also a state senator. Young people need to learn the difficult history of the Holocaust, she said, so they are better prepared to confront distortions and denials and to understand that unchecked bias can build and lead to genocide.
Emphasizing the need to speak up early is essential, said Page Herrlinger, a professor of history at Bowdoin College who recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to train teachers across the country to teach the Holocaust.
The Holocaust showed “how easy it is for anti-Semitism, racism and social isolation to become politicized and weaponized,” she said.
Many German people were drawn to Nazi-ism because of national pride and economics, not anti-Semitism, Herrlinger said. But as the anti-Semitism becamse central to the party, too few protested or spoke up.
Holocaust education is about open minds and preparing students “to be part of a collective voice that will not tolerate any encroachment … on civil rights,” she said.
Such lessons remain vitally important as the U.S. struggles to address racial, economic and other disparities and as leaders, including our president, seek to divide Americans along lines of race, religion, gender identity and political affiliation.