24 May 2016

Tuesday Talk: The young do not know history

By Jerry Amernic

Novelists deal with rejection. We get rejected all the time and receive replies like “This does not fit in with our current editorial needs.” But when a publisher turns down a novel because “I found that I had to suspend disbelief,” as one of them told my agent, that is another thing.

My novel The Last Witness is set in the near future in 2039. It’s about a 100-year-old man who is the last living survivor of the Holocaust, but he lives in a world abysmally ignorant and complacent about the last century. Apparently, this publisher didn’t think people’s knowledge of history would be so thin one generation down the road.

So I produced a video. Now you can’t make a video that shows what people know or don’t know about major historical events in the near future, as in my novel, but you can make one that shows what they know today. And I did. A videographer and I went out one cold afternoon in November to ask university students in Toronto what they know about the Holocaust and World War II.

I asked two girls when the Holocaust took place and at first they said “the 1980s,” but they weren’t sure. Then they said “nineteen-forty …” but not with much conviction.

I asked the next pair if they ever heard of The Final Solution and no they hadn’t. I asked if they have heard of D-Day and the beaches of Normandy. This was a few days before November 11th and one might think the war would be top of mind. One of them shook his head while the other said something about D-Day being “the last day that it was all going on” and that was it. Neither of them could tell me who the Allies were, or who FDR or Churchill were. And on it went.

People are shocked when they see my video. It was shown at a conference of historians in Poland and is now in the film library at Yad Yashem, the world centre for Holocaust research in Jerusalem. I show it when I speak to book clubs or do talks about my novels. The video has been shown at church congregations and in synagogues.

While The Last Witness is fiction, it’s also a warning that we imperil ourselves by neglecting the past. The novel has flashbacks with my character as a little boy in a Jewish ghetto and later at Auschwitz where he is the only one in his family to survive, and how he survives is, well, the stuff of novels.

University or college students who know precious little about history are not confined to Canada. Indeed, in my research I looked at many polls and surveys. A 2008 survey by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum – the first museum in the U.S. dedicated to the First Amendment – found that 22% of Americans sampled could name all five members of the TV family ‘The Simpsons,’ but only one in 1,000 could name all five freedoms from the First Amendment.

Gallup has done surveys too. It once asked Americans ‘Which country dropped the nuclear bomb?’ Only 49% knew. Less than half. Another time it asked ‘What was the Holocaust?’ and 70% of respondents said they knew, but that meant 30% didn’t.

A 2011 poll in the U.K. found that more than 28% of young people aged 18 to 29 didn’t know if the Holocaust ever happened.

A 2005 poll by the American Jewish Committee surveyed Holocaust knowledge in seven countries – the U.S., Austria, France, Germany, Poland, the U.K., and Sweden. Right across the board, for every question, knowledge was greatest in Sweden and lowest in the United States. One question asked if people knew what Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka were. In Sweden 91% of the respondents said they knew, but in the U.S. it was only 44%. The U.K. wasn’t much better at 53%.

Another question was about how many Jews were killed in Europe by the Nazis. Again, Sweden was at the top with 55% who said they knew, and the U.S. was at the bottom with 33%. Here’s a final word on surveys. In 2009 the University of Haifa in Israel surveyed Israeli Arabs about the Holocaust and over 40% of them didn’t think it took place. They thought it was a myth.

I did a lot of research to write The Last Witness, as I do with all my books. I met with former child survivors, and with Sir Martin Gilbert, the esteemed British historian who passed away last year. Gilbert was the official biographer of Winston Churchill and wrote over 70 books, and is widely considered the leading chronicler of the Holocaust. Not one former child survivor nor Mr. Gilbert himself had a problem with my premise about people knowing so little about something like the Holocaust.

Young people not knowing history is a problem that permeates much of the world, but let’s focus on the West. This is a serious issue in Canada, the U.S., U.K., and many other countries.

Last summer I attended the Thrillerfest conference in New York City and met Nelson DeMemille, one of the world’s top selling writers. He asked for a copy of The Last Witness, so I sent it to him. Later I received a letter – not an email, a letter – and he said the premise of my novel is on target. He also said he majored in history in college and can’t believe how little young people know today.

I can’t speak for all school systems, but in Ontario where I live high schools require only one history course, which the student can take in first year, and then never touch a history book again.

Last year I released another novel. QUMRAN is a biblical-historical thriller that gets into the Dead Sea Scrolls, all the Arab-Israeli wars of the 20th century, and stuff like the Holy Shroud and Holy Grail. The holy what? Well, if you don’t know, maybe you should just read it.

[Jerry Amernic is an author of novels and non-fiction books. His 2014 novel The Last Witness is about the last living survivor of the Holocaust, while his 2015 release QUMRAN is a biblical-historical thriller about an archaeologist who makes a dramatic discovery in the Holy Land.]

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  1. I am proud to say my fourteen-year-old daughter knows when the Holocaust took place, D-Day and where. Matter of fact she knows more about World War II than a lot of adults I know. She can even tell you who FDR and Churchill were. She has a great interest in history. Most of what she has learned has been from reading on her own and not from school.

    1. Jerry's had problems replying so on his behalf: It’s great that your daughter reads and is up on her history. But the schools should retain History as a core subject, and they have largely dismissed it which is a big reason why young people today, by and large, don’t know history.

  2. I'd say it is up to parents. In our home we have always talked a lot about context, and how can we assess our world without understanding the historical background?
    Some years ago, the Swedish government was shocked to discover so many knew so little about the Holocaust, and accordingly a book was produced and sent out to all Swedish households. I think it helped.

    1. I agree Anna, we talk about these things at home - Kathy always buys her own poppy and observes the minute silence on Remembrance Day.

    2. Jerry's had problems replying so on his behalf: That’s a great idea. Where I live in Canada educators routinely are against anything that smacks of testing students for their knowledge or ability.

  3. My father's life started at the end of of one world war and his youth finished in the following one. As a medic in the Allied armies, he went into the camps when they reached Germany. We have always known about the Holocaust. My son visted Auschwitz when he was in Poland and was profoundly moved. His Jewish, Muslim and Hindu classmates equally so.
    It's a scandal that children in the West are ignorant of these horrors, but in a backhanded way, it's a success that they feel so confident they don't feel they need to know. I think.

    1. I also wish what little history is taught in school could be made more interesting - with re-enactment, willing authors etc there's no excuse now!

    2. Jerry's had problems replying so on his behalf: I don’t think that’s a success at all. Our young people not knowing about the Holocaust, never mind World War II, FDR, Churchill or what happened on D-Day is sacrilege. And a recipe for disaster in the future.

  4. I feel sad when I see something like this. Perhaps the details of WWII may be fuzzy for some young students (many history classes in high schools are taught like survey courses and speed through time in order to meet testing and semester deadlines)but still one would hope they learn and retain some basic facts, in my opinion. However, that anyone today who is considered an adult does not have a basic awareness of the Holocaust is simply unbelievable to me. And I agree with Helen about the methodology that should be used in history classes today. Some schools are using more experiential approaches, but not all.

    1. I am ashamed to admit that I did my geography homeworl during history lessons at school. But then, the teacher droned (yes right word) from a text book - boring is an understatement. Fortunately I discovered history for myself - through fiction, which led to wanting to find out more. My Dad being a POW, of course, meant I did know about WWII

    2. Jerry's had problems replying so on his behalf: Much of what appears to be taught in History classes these days is not so much about facts and things that actually happened, but sociology-speak. The result is that students just don’t know.


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