Dec. 31, 2004
Ignorance about the Holocaust

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

The majority of respondents in a new survey about knowledge of the Holocaust said they did not know what Auschwitz was-but Holocaust experts are questioning the study's methodology and the accuracy of the results.

The survey, conducted by the International Society for Sephardic Progress, questioned passersby in public areas in Orlando, Florida in a poll that was hastily planned after a BBC study found that 45 percent of respondents in Britain said they had not heard of Auschwitz. The Orlando poll found that 63 percent of 840 respondents did not know what Auschwitz-Birkenau referred to, with the highest levels of ignorance among the 21-30 age group.

"It's a benchmark on our own community," said Shelomo Alfassa, executive director of the International Society for Sephardic Progress. "England does not have an exclusive on not knowing what the Holocaust is. It's just as bad as here."

Alfassa said it was his group's first-ever study.

Scholars and officials at some institutions involved in studying the Holocaust and anti-Semitism said the Florida survey-in which questioners approached people coming out of supermarkets, courthouses, post offices and shopping malls in Orlando, Florida's sixth-largest city-did not appear to be reliable.

"That's not a methodology," said Michael Berenbaum, director of a center for Holocaust studies at the University of Judaism, in Los Angeles. "It's not the way you do it and it's not the way you come to conclusions one has to work with. I'm not sure I would stop to answer the question if it were asked of me that way."

But Berenbaum and others who cast aspersions on the Orlando survey's results could not point to other surveys with different results.

Perhaps more than anything else, the questions surrounding the Orlando study's methodology show how little is known about Americans' level of knowledge of the Holocaust. For all the teaching about the Holocaust in America-the country has more Holocaust museums than anywhere else in the world, Holocaust education is mandated by law in several US states and the White House even has a commission on the Holocaust-there has been little effort to gauge the effectiveness of that education.

The Anti-Defamation League regularly surveys anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States and abroad, and in a recent survey found that nearly half of all European respondents felt that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust, but an ADL spokeswoman said the organization had not studied whether or not people know about the Holocaust.

Andrew Hollinger, a spokesman for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, said his organization also has not asked questions about individuals' knowledge of the Holocaust. "Even among our visitors, we never really look at previous knowledge of the Holocaust," he said.

In the Orlando study, conducted at a cost of $2,000, researchers approached participants, held up a card with the words "Auschwitz-Birkenau" and asked them to answer yes or no to the question "Do you know what Auschwitz-Birkenau refers to?"

Only 37 percent said it was a Nazi concentration camp or that it had to do with the campaign of extermination against the Jews. Those who merely said it had something to do with the Nazis or World War II were counted among the 63 percent who did not know what Auschwitz was. Women generally were less knowledgeable than men, and knowledge of Auschwitz was greatest among older men, the survey found.

Some respondents asked if Auschwitz was a type of car, Alfassa said.

"It was the best study that we can do," Alfassa said. "We're going to use it as a reason to go back to the school system here in town and emphasize Holocaust studies."

The BBC study published earlier this month showed 45 percent of 4,000 adults surveyed in Britain did not know what Auschwitz was. That survey was conducted by mail and was nationally representative, the BBC said.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the apparent ignorance in Orlando about the Holocaust was surprising given the number of films and books produced in recent years about the subject. He said the Wiesenthal Center has never conducted a study of Americans' knowledge of the Holocaust.

"I'm much more concerned with the issue of the proliferation and return of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world than the question with the recognition of a name," Hier said. "However, it shows the ignorance."