A new poll shows that a nearly a third of New Zealanders know little or nothing about the Holocaust and less than half know that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Mark Jennings reports.
Next year will be the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz but what happened there and in other Nazi death camps is drifting from our consciousness.
Nearly a million Jews were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Poles, Gypsies and Russian prisoners of war made up another 100,000.
Auschwitz was the most efficient killing machine but Treblinka and Belzec, two more death camps in German-occupied Poland, were close behind with a combined 1.4 million victims.
There are thousands of survivors still alive today, including a small number in New Zealand, but our knowledge of the Holocaust is fading or increasingly, non-existent.
In a poll of 1000 New Zealanders taken last month, 27 percent said they knew little about the Holocaust, 28 percent said they were unsure about how much they knew and 2 percent admitted to knowing nothing.
The figures for people aged between 18 and 30 show a grimmer picture. Half said they knew a little bit, 29 percent said they were unsure what they knew and 4 percent said they knew nothing.
Just 14 percent said they knew a reasonable amount and 4 percent claimed to know a lot about the Holocaust.
Should we be surprised? Not if international trends are a guide.
A major poll conducted by CNN last year revealed a third of Europeans knew little or nothing about the Holocaust. Five percent had never heard of it.
In Adolf Hitler’s birthplace, Austria, 12 percent of young people said they’ve never heard of the Holocaust and in France, 20 percent of people under 30 said the same thing.
The Chief Executive of the New Zealand Holocaust Centre in Wellington, Chris Harris, is not surprised by the local poll results.
“I think it is indicative of the education system, there is no compulsion for schools to teach about the Holocaust, it is optional for social studies or history teachers whether they do.
“Some of them do it very well, some do it badly and a lot just ignore it.”
Harris says when he asks teachers why they don’t do more on the Holocaust he nearly always gets one of two answers. “They are either worried someone is going to come back and have a go at them about Israel or they say the topic is too big.”
The Holocaust Centre is trying to counter the negative reaction with its ‘Just one hour’ campaign where teachers are encouraged to devote a single hour to covering the basics of the Holocaust.
“It is not a lot but at least it’s something,” says Harris.
“When schools sign up, we publicly acknowledge it and write to the principals thanking them.”
The New Zealand poll was commissioned by the Auckland Holocaust Memorial Trust and conducted by Curia market research.
Trust chair, 84-year-old Bob Narev, a concentration camp survivor, says while the overall lack of knowledge about the Holocaust doesn’t surprise him, the fact that 4 percent of the poll respondents thought it was a myth and 30 percent were unsure if it was a myth or exaggerated, is disturbing.
“We have to accept that like any fake news there will always be a group of people who believe it [didn’t happen].
“I personally can’t vouch for the six million Jews that were killed but at Yad Vashem (World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Israel) there is volume after volume of the Nazis’ own records. The Germans kept very good records on the number of Jews they killed, especially German Jews.”
For the past 10 years, Narev and his wife Freda, who also survived the Holocaust, have spent much of their time talking to school children about their experiences.
“We find that the kids, when they get the chance, are actually very interested in what happened and ask us a lot of questions about what it was like.”
Narev and his parents were sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, in 1942. His father died in the camp but he and his mother were part of a group of 1200 prisoners who ended up in Switzerland.
“One day the Germans asked for 1200 volunteers to go to Switzerland. Nobody wanted to go as they thought it was a trick and we would be killed.
“As a nine-year-old I really wanted to go on a train trip and I nagged my mother until she agreed.”
Narev left the camp in February 1945 shortly before a typhus outbreak killed most of the remaining prisoners.
Ten thousand children passed through the camp in the two and half years that Narev was there. About 1 percent survived.
“It was just last year that I found out the true story of what happened. A group of New York Jews offered to pay Himmler (Reichsfuhrer of the SS) one million dollars if 1200 Jews were released from the camp. He took the money and there was going to be another similar deal but Hitler found out and stopped it.”
The Curia poll also posed a multi-choice question: how many Jews were killed in Europe during the Holocaust? Was it one hundred thousand, six hundred thousand, one million, two million or six million?
Only 43 percent of respondents got the right answer – six million.
For the 18-30 group that dropped to 32 percent. The director of Curia, David Farrar, expected a lot more people to get the correct answer.
“Even if you know nothing else about the Holocaust, you usually know this.
“If we simply asked people just to name the figure (number of Jews killed) you might expect 50 percent not to know, but this was multi choice and the next highest figure after six million was two million.
“We didn’t put five million, six million and seven million to make it hard or anything, it was relatively easy to get the right answer.”
Farrar, whose own family were German refugees, has a theory on why knowledge of the Holocaust is declining.
“I guess the Holocaust happened over six years and there hasn’t been the same focus on it like there has been on D day or VE day or Pearl Harbour. I actually can’t tell you when International Holocaust day is.”
In 2005, the UN designated January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated, as an annual International Day of Commemoration for victims of the Holocaust and urged member states to develop educational programmes to instil the memory of the tragedy in future generations to prevent genocide from occurring again.
Narev says he also expected more people to know that six million Jews perished.
“Whenever the Holocaust is mentioned it normally includes that figure. Given that it is more than New Zealand’s population I would have thought it would stick [in people’s minds].
There is another number that Narev would like people to remember. Of the six million Jews who were murdered, one and a half million were children.
The Auckland Holocaust Memorial Trust wants to create a memorial to those children in the Auckland Domain.
The Trust was gifted between two and three hundred cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland and is hoping these can be used to create a ‘garden of humanity’ close to the winter gardens.
Auckland landscape architect Cathy Challinor is leading the design team. Challinor designed the emotive New Zealand garden at Passchendaele to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the WW1 disaster that claimed more New Zealand lives than any other battle.
Narev is hoping his and the Trust’s own battle (it has taken 10 years) to get approval for the memorial garden is close to finishing and the remembrance project can finally start.
“Education will be at the forefront of this project. The results of the poll worry me, especially the young people. I’d like to think this can somehow start to be reversed.”