March 2020 -- Adar-Nisan 5780,  Volume 26, Issue 3

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Survey Shows What Americans Know About the Holocaust

Most U.S. adults know what the Holocaust was and approximately when it happened, but fewer than half can correctly answer multiple-choice questions about the number of Jews who were murdered or the way Adolf Hitler came to power, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.


When asked to describe in their own words what the Holocaust was, more than eight-in-ten Americans mention the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people or other related topics, such as concentration or death camps, Hitler, or the Nazis. Seven-in-ten know that the Holocaust happened between 1930 and 1950. And close to two-thirds know that Nazi-created ghettos were parts of a city or town where Jews were forced to live.


Fewer than half of Americans (43%), however, know that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process. And a similar share (45%) know that approximately 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they are not sure how many Jews died during the Holocaust, while one-in-ten overestimate the death toll, and 15% say that 3 million or fewer Jews were killed.


 This raises an important question: Are those who underestimate the death toll simply uninformed, or are they Holocaust deniers – people with anti-Semitic views who “claim that the Holocaust was invented or exaggerated by Jews as part of a plot to advance Jewish interests”?1


While the survey cannot answer this question directly, the data suggests that relatively few people in this group express strongly negative feelings toward Jews. On a “feeling thermometer” designed to gauge sentiments toward a variety of groups, nine-in-ten non-Jewish respondents who underestimate the Holocaust’s death toll express neutralor warm feelings toward Jews, while just one-in-ten give Jews a cold rating. Similar shares express cold feelings toward Jews among those who overestimate the number of Holocaust deaths (9%) and among those who say they do not know how many Jews died in the Holocaust or decline to answer the question (12%).


Respondents who get more questions right also tend to express warmer feelings toward Jews. For example, non-Jews who correctly answer at least three of the four multiple-choice questions about the Holocaust rate Jews at a relatively warm 67 degrees on the feeling thermometer, on average. By comparison, non-Jews who correctly answer one question or less (including those who get none right) rate their feelings toward Jews at 58 degrees, on average.


These are among the key findings of a survey conducted online Feb. 4 to 19, 2019, among 10,971 respondents. The study was conducted mostly among members of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults recruited from landline and cellphone random-digit-dial surveys and an address-based survey), supplemented by interviews with members of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.

U.S. Jews are more likely than atheists and agnostics to know how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Nearly nine-in-ten Jews know that about 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, compared with two-thirds of agnostics (64%) and atheists (63%) who get this question right. By contrast, more atheists and agnostics than Jews correctly answer the question about how Hitler became chancellor of Germany: Three-quarters of atheists (76%) and seven-in-ten agnostics know Hitler became chancellor through a democratic political process, compared with 57% of Jews.

Education, visiting a Holocaust museum and knowing someone who is Jewish are strongly linked with Holocaust knowledge


In addition to religious affiliation, several other factors are associated with how much Americans know about the Holocaust. For example, college graduates get an average of 2.8 out of the four multiple-choice questions right, while those whose formal education ended with high school correctly answer 1.7 questions.


Another factor linked with how much Americans know about the Holocaust is whether respondents have ever visited a Holocaust memorial or museum. U.S. adults who say they have visited a Holocaust memorial or museum (27% of all respondents) correctly answer 2.9 questions right out of the four multiple-choice questions about the Holocaust. By comparison, those who have never visited a Holocaust memorial or museum answer 2.0 questions right, on average.


The survey included a question that asked respondents whether they personally know someone who is Jewish. Compared with those who say they do not know anyone who is Jewish, Americans who know a Jewish person answer about one additional question right, on average (2.6 vs. 1.5).


Older adults display slightly higher levels of Holocaust knowledge.


There are modest differences in levels of knowledge about the Holocaust based on gender, race and ethnicity, age, and region. For example, men correctly answer 2.5 out of four multiple-choice questions, on average, while women get 1.9 right.3 And white respondents get an average of 2.5 questions right, compared with 1.2 questions among black adults and 1.7 questions among Hispanics.


In addition, Americans ages 65 and older correctly answer an average of 2.5 questions about the Holocaust, compared with 2.2 right answers among those under the age of 65. And U.S. adults who live in the West, Northeast and Midwest perform slightly better than those who live in the South.