By Karen Zautyk
“… are doomed to repeat it.”
I would attribute that quote, but my research has revealed that it has been credited to various sources, from philosopher George Santayana to 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke — and several other people besides.
There are also variations on the wording itself — but all with the same basic meaning. The one I use here is the one I’ve always remembered — so be it.
It is applicable because this column concerns an apparent abysmal — and frightening — lack of historical knowledge among younger Americans. Is history no longer being taught at all? I honestly wonder.
Awhile back, I wrote about seemingly educated youth who thought Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. That was disturbing enough, but now comes a Washington Post story headlined: “Holocaust study: Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is.”
The story notes that these were American millennials — ages 18-34 — polled by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The results, released on April 11, Holocaust Remembrance Day, made headlines around the world, though I don’t recall much, if any, coverage on local news channels. But, then, local news channels now appear to operate on the theory that the weather is the most important story of the day.
Some years ago, I visited the national Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibits, including a boxcar that carried Jews to one of the Nazis’ thousands of labor, concentration and exterminations camps, and an entire roomful of shoes — from adults’ to toddlers’ — taken from prisoners, were heart-wrenching.
But the exhibit that affected me most deeply was the one devoted to the rise of Nazism and its evolution into mass murder: Newspaper articles, films, propaganda, etc., that began simply and, via a steady, increasing drumbeat, eventually persuaded an entire society that millions of their fellow human beings required extermination. Because those people were judged to be less than human.
It is incomprehensible.
Perhaps that is why latter-day “educators” feel it is not worth much focus? If I am doing teachers a disservice here, my apologies, but how else to explain what I perceive — and polls show — to be a disgraceful lack of historical knowledge among our younger generations?
I once called a radio station after I heard a news story promo noting that some German company had come up with “the final solution” to some automotive problem. I couldn’t believe my ears.
When a man in the newsroom answered the phone and I raised my objection, it was obvious that initially he hadn’t a clue as to why I was upset. So I said: “Final Solution, Germany, Hitler, Holocaust?” “Oh,” he said. A few minutes later, the story came on, and the “final solution” reference had, thankfully, been removed.
Thank you, sir, whoever you were. I hope you eventually did some reading on the topic.
Interestingly enough, the millennials/Auschwitz story had at least one positive result. Last week, there was a TV report about a special seminar at the Port Authority Police Academy, where the speakers were a rabbi and a Holocaust survivor.
A PAPD deputy inspector had arranged the program apparently after hearing about the poll and reportedly learning that less than one-third of the recruits had knowledge of the Holocaust. Aside from the obvious need to fill in this educational gap, the officer cited the recent rise in anti-Semitic crimes.
In the end, It’s all about context.
Education is about context.
Any society, even ours, that “fails to learn from history …”