Nearly a third of North American students think the Holocaust was exaggerated or fabricated, according to a new study, which also found that 40 per cent of students reported learning about the Holocaust through social media.
“They’re getting information from who knows where and it’s resulting in… (them thinking), did this event in history happen?” the study’s author, Alexis Lerner, told CTV News. Lerner is an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
“We hear about the negative, dangerous impacts of social media,” Lerner said. “I think this is part of the same story.”
For the study, nearly 3,600 students in Grades 6 through 12 were surveyed both before and after a two-day virtual conference focusing on the Holocaust. Almost 80 per cent of the students were in Canada, while the rest were in U.S. classrooms. Just over six per cent identified as Jewish.
According to the study, nearly 33 per cent of the students felt the Holocaust was fabricated or exaggerated, or they were unsure if it even took place. Social media also wasn’t their only source of information.
“A lot of them talked about Marvel as the place where they had originally learned about the Holocaust,” Lerner said, referring to the superhero media franchise, which includes fictional Second World War hero Captain America. “Or 12 per cent said that they heard about it from a videogame, which is sort of the same story.”
A shocking 42 per cent of the students reported unequivocally witnessing an antisemitic event, including at their own schools. Some students, Lerner noted, also believed something like the Holocaust couldn’t happen again.
“And yet we do have the Uyghurs (in China), and we do have the Rohingya (in Myanmar), and we do have all these groups that are the victims of genocidal violence,” Lerner, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral fellow at Ontario’s Western University, said.
The study was commissioned by Ontario-based Holocaust education non-profit Liberation75, which was created to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration and death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The date of the camp’s liberation – January 27, 1945 – now stands for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls this Thursday.
Also referred to as the Shoah, the Holocaust genocide claimed the lives of an estimated six million Jews during the Second World War, and also led to the murders of five million others, including Roma people, ethnic Poles and Slavs, and members of the LGBTQ community.
“The Holocaust isn’t just a Jewish story,” Liberation75 founder Marilyn Sinclair told CTV News. “It’s a story of what humans are capable of and what we need to do to be responsible to other people in our society.”
In 2020 and 2021, Sinclair says Liberation75 was able to run virtual Holocaust programming for 650,000 students across North America.
“Holocaust education teaches us about the dangers of what happens when hate goes unchecked and we don’t stand up for each other,” Sinclair, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, said.
Although it may be mentioned in things like high school history textbooks, no Canadian province or territory has mandated Holocaust education as part of their secondary school curriculum. In the U.S., 22 states do, including Florida, which requires it from kindergarten and up. For younger kids, Lerner says lessons are focused not on the horrors of Nazi crimes, but on topics like bullying, tolerance and kindness—and they show results.
“They were more likely to say that antisemitism was happening, they were more likely to say antisemitism was a problem, and they were less likely to say that the Holocaust didn’t happen,” Lerner said of Florida students. “Education makes a huge impact.”
The study also showed that after an educational seminar, students were nine-per-cent more likely to say they’d intervene if they saw an antisemitic event, while 92 per cent of students wanted to know more about the Holocaust – proof to Sinclair that it’s time to update Canadian curriculums.
“My father spoke to schools for more than 20 years and he always finished his talks this way: he said, ‘We must fight hate and protect the freedoms that this country Canada provides,’” Sinclair recalled. “If you want to live in a great country, you have to protect freedom for everybody—not just yourself. And I think that’s what we need to educate our students about.”