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Yom Hashoah Feature Survey: Americans Trail Europe in Knowledge About the Holocaust

Anti-Semitism may be on the rise in Europe, but Europeans still know more about the Holocaust than Americans, a new study finds. Sixty years after the end of World War II, just 44 percent of U.S. respondents in an American Jewish Committee survey identified Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka as concentration or death camps.

By contrast, 91 percent of Swedish, 88 percent of Austrian, 79 percent of Polish, 78 percent of French, 77 percent of German and 53 percent of British respondents correctly labeled the camps.

The AJCommittee study, obtained by JTA in advance of its slated Wednesday release, further finds that only a third of Americans know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Among Europeans, 55 percent of Swedish respondents know the 6 million number, as do 49 percent of French and German respondents, 41 percent of Austrian respondents and 39 percent of British respondents. Only 30 percent of Polish respondents know this number.

“The reality is the Holocaust occurred on European soil. It’s an integral and inescapable part of their history,” said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and a consultant on the development of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “The good news is that if they know something, that means that European societies have taken steps” to educate their people.

Sweden, for example, has launched a national Holocaust education campaign, distributing 7 million copies of a book about the Holocaust, even translating it into several languages so that as many people as possible can read it.

Still, Berenbaum cautioned against reading too much into the Europeans’ survey responses.

“Let’s not overestimate how much Europeans know,” he said. “The fact that Prince Harry could have dressed up in a Nazi uniform shows that he doesn’t know a thing about the Holocaust or British history,” and he was educated in the United Kingdom.

The young English royal was caught on camera in January wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party. The picture was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the globe.

David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director, said the apparent lack of Holocaust knowledge among Americans in comparison to Europeans has more to do with historical ignorance in the United States than with issues about the Holocaust in particular.

“Generally, on questions related to history — whether it’s American history or world history — as a nation we don’t do terribly well,” he said. “With the additional factor of geographic distance, it only confounds the problem in this case.”

“This is a country of 290 million people and you reach as many people as you can,” Harris added. “But you know, even if the Holocaust museum in Washington has a couple of million visitors a year and even if ‘Schindler’s List’ is a successful movie, there are tens of millions of people who are untouched by these experiences.”

A majority of respondents, in both the United States and Europe, said the Holocaust made clear the importance of Israel’s existence as a haven for Jews, and said keeping the memory of the Holocaust strong is important. Most also expressed support for compulsory lessons in schools about the Nazi extermination of Jews.

Asked about anti-Semitism in their country, 11 percent of Americans said it is a very serious problem, 56 percent said it is somewhat of a problem and 23 percent said it isn’t a problem at all.

Only 9 percent of British respondents said anti-Semitism is a very serious problem, with 47 percent calling it somewhat of a problem and 32 percent saying it isn’t a problem at all. Among Austrians, 8 percent said anti-Semitism is a very serious problem, 55 percent said it is somewhat of a problem and 33 percent said it isn’t a problem at all.

Respondents also were asked whether they agree with the statement that “Jews exert too much influence on world events.” Twenty-two percent of the Polish respondents said they strongly agree with the statement, as did 15 percent of the Austrians, 12 percent of the Germans, 10 percent of the British, 8 percent of the French and the Americans and 3 percent of the Swedes.

Asked whether they were very sympathetic, somewhat sympathetic, somewhat unsympathetic, very unsympathetic or neutral in their attitudes toward Jews, the number of respondents in the “very unsympathetic” category did not top 1 percent in any group.

Three-quarters of the Austrian respondents said they were neutral, as did 69 percent of German, 59 percent of Polish, 55 percent of Swedish, 53 percent of French and 37 percent of British respondents.

Among Americans, 30 percent said they were very sympathetic, 25 percent somewhat sympathetic, 3 percent somewhat unsympathetic, 1 percent very unsympathetic and 34 percent neutral.

“We at the American Jewish Committee can find in each country results that are more and less encouraging,” Harris said.

The survey was carried out between March and April 2005 among 6,948 people reached by phone. The margin of error in each country was 3 percentage points.

A public opinion poll taken in April in Russia found that four out of 10 Muscovites aren’t sure what the Holocaust was. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they knew what the Holocaust was, 15 percent had heard the term but weren’t sure exactly what it meant and 28 percent did not know what the Holocaust was.

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