Op-Ed: I barely learned anything about the Holocaust in high school

“What is the difference between a Jew and a Boy Scout?” a friend asked with a huge grin on his face as I sat down in my seventh grade science class. “The Boy Scout is coming back from camp!” He and everyone else at my table burst out laughing. Did my classmates even know what they were laughing at? Annoyed but uncertain, I faked a smile. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t say anything.

Growing up, I heard about the Holocaust through the stories my now 92-year-old grandfather told as a teenager about his perilous escape from fascist Italy. He described the indifference he saw in the eyes of soldiers and civilians, the fear in his parents’ muffled voices as they planned to flee, how his heart pounded as he slipped under a fence with his 3-year-old child to escape to reach Switzerland sister in his lap.

He escaped just hours before German soldiers showed up at his home in Milan to take his family to a concentration camp. It’s a miracle he survived and that I’m here today. Looking him in the eye as he recalls his frantic escape, I see him reliving the story my friend so unabashedly joked about.

My generation is the last to be able to speak to Holocaust survivors and people who experienced life in Nazi Europe. As this crucial connection to the Holocaust fades, so will our collective memory of it. When there are no living survivors left, Holocaust denial becomes easier and more general.

I am a junior in high school, and my formal training on the subject consisted of a slide with a brief account of concentration camps and a short worksheet. If that’s all I was taught, it’s no surprise that knowledge of the Holocaust is severely lacking across the country.

Almost 1 in 3 American adults say they believe less than 2 million people were killed, and about 1 in 10 people are not sure if the holocaust even happened. In a nationwide survey 11% of Millennials and Gen Z report that they believe the Jews themselves created the Holocaust. Be clear: Two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population was murdered.

Eighty years later, anti-Semitism is on the rise. As a Jewish American, I had to walk past security guards and a metal detector to enter my synagogue for fear of being shot. Swastikas have been painted on schools, Jewish centers and even a State Department elevator. When I recall the chants of “Jews will not replace us” by white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, it chills me to the core.

Earlier this school year, one of my teachers made a casual remark implying that because I was Jewish, I must have money. Last spring, someone dropped an anti-Semitic notice on my family’s doorstep, calling government officials “Jewish-inspired communists.” Accepting stereotypes and making threats can get far worse.

In middle school, I invited my grandfather to talk to my classmates about his experiences during the Holocaust. He spoke about his luck: he had been playing ball with friends when he lost out and had to go to fetch water for the group from home – and met his panicked family almost outside the door. He spoke of his parents’ decision to accept the help of Italian soldiers at the Swiss border despite the risk of betrayal, and his bleak and demoralizing life as a teenager in a refugee camp.

My colleagues listened with open mouths, as I always do when I hear these stories. When he finished, he had tears in his eyes. Then someone asked, “What did Gentiles do to stop this?”

I heard so little about the Holocaust during my school days that I could easily forget it if I didn’t have intimate personal connections to it. My 10th grade history class in Virginia spent weeks explaining the way of life of the ancient Mesopotamians and less than a day the Holocaust. It’s hard to fathom.

Virginia requires four years of high school history, and World History II is the only course that touches on the Holocaust. Government Guidelines 61 broad topics are taught for this course – one of which folds the Holocaust into “Examples of Genocide in the 21st Century”. It’s not enough.

Such gaps in the education about the Holocaust scare me. I’m scared that the collective ignorance and ongoing hatred of Jews is growing into something so much bigger and it makes me fear for my loved ones and myself. I’m afraid I’m seeing the seeds of civil unrest and educators aren’t doing enough to stop it.

When my friend made this joke in seventh grade, I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be ostracized for ruining his “funny” moment. I now realize that his comment was made out of ignorance. Every generation needs to be educated about the events and ideology that made the Holocaust possible, so that they are given the opportunity to understand the terrible consequences of unchecked hate and ignorance.

We must ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust outlive the last survivors.

Gabriel Ascoli is a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Op-Ed: I barely learned anything about the Holocaust in high school

Grace Reader

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