In late December 2018, the Facebook page for Yahoo! Now shared a link to an article with a comment that two-thirds of millennials “don’t know what Auschwitz was.”
The post linked to an article aggregated to Yahoo! from Newsweek on April 12 2018, “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It reported:
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference, released the findings of its survey to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day. They show a notable lack of understanding among Americans, especially millennials, the group said … Just under a third (31 percent) of those surveyed do not believe that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust and think the real death toll is at least 2 million lower. This was true for 41 percent of millennials.
… Almost half (45 percent) of Americans were unable to name a single concentration camp, and the number was even worse for millennials (49 percent). Two-thirds (66 percent) of millennials were unable to explain what Auschwitz was. The death camp is one of the most infamous ones that existed in Nazi-ruled Europe, and its name has become synonymous with the genocide.
A slight but meaningful difference existed between the Facebook share embedded above and the content of the article, which itself paraphrased a survey from April 2018. The post stated that two-thirds of millennials “don’t know what Auschwitz was,” but the article said two-thirds were “unable to explain what Auschwitz was.” Not knowing a thing and being unable to explain a thing are vastly different descriptors — without further details in either the post or the article, readers were not necessarily equipped to determine just what purported level of ignorance “millennials” maintained about the events of the Holocaust.
At the time of its original publication, the claim was shared by actress Debra Messing, who wrote:
61% of Millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. That statistic took my breath away. How is that possible? When I was in high school we went to Germany and Austria on a school trip and we visited Dachau. Another concentration camp. I can’t put into words what it was like standing in the gas chamber. Seeing the crematorium. The whole place was gray. I sobbed and didn’t know how to process what I was seeing. At 14 it’s hard to accept that such horror, such evil, could exist in the world. I will never forget that visit. I pray that we never stop teaching our children about this dark period in our history. Those millions of lives lost must not be for naught. Hate crimes are on the rise. Talk of the Other has returned to our country’s public discourse. You hear it from the people entrusted to protect us from regressing. And violence based on religion, and race is on the rise. Please don’t look away. Please don’t be tricked into believing that all is well. When the atrocities were happening, America didn’t respond because we were told the stories were “fake news.” Only after it was too late did we realize the truth. It is a Lesson we must remember Today. Stay curious. Seek out many different sources for news. Our Democracy, our humanity, depends on it. God bless us All. #NeverAgain #holocaustremembrance
Messing’s post (to which a video, not an article, was attached) claimed that 61 percent of millennials “don’t know what Auschwitz is,” versus the 66 percent referenced in the Yahoo!/Newsweek item. Another Facebook page shared the same news story, but it was unclear why an article from April 2018 suddenly recaptured the attention of social media.
From the very little conveyed in the article and shares of it, there were plenty of questions about its methodology and classification. Among them were precisely what the survey classified as “millennials” for its purposes, and what specific questions were asked of respondents. Yahoo! linked to an undated piece published by The Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc. (Claims Conference), “New Survey by Claims Conference Finds Significant Lack of Holocaust Knowledge in the United States.”
Once again, that piece was a secondary source — it summarized the purported results of a survey (inaccurately describing it as a “study”) without actually providing the results. It demonstrated that the claim was not unlike a game of “Telephone,” losing context each time it traveled further from its origin.
At the top of the post was a graphic that provided yet another number purportedly illustrating millennial ignorance about the Holocaust, this time suggesting 49 percent could not name any concentration camps:
In the original post, Claims Conference did not suggest that two-thirds of millennials did not know what Auschwitz was. Its sole mention of millennials was in a bullet-pointed portion:
* Nearly one-third of all Americans (31 percent) and more than 4-in-10 Millennials (41 percent) believe that substantially less than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust
* While there were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, almost half of Americans (45 percent) cannot name a single one – and this percentage is even higher amongst Millennials
The portion indicated 31 percent of Americans and 41 percent of millennials were unsure how many Jewish people died during the Holocaust, and that 45 percent of Americans (and an unstated percentage of millennials) were unable to identify any concentration camps by name. Once again, failure to produce the name of Auschwitz or any other concentration camp did not mean that any of those surveyed were necessarily unaware of their existence individually or as a whole.
So far, the information traveled from Claims Conference to Newsweek to Yahoo with contextual information stripped away with each step down that line, and that two-thirds, 66 percent, 61 percent, and 49 percent of millennials “didn’t know” what Auschwitz was.
The actual source for the claims was an undated document [PDF, archived] attributed to public relations firm Schoen Consulting. It labeled itself a “study,” but seemed to be a run-of-the-mill phone survey (rather than an academic study) conducted in February 2018. Schoen Consulting’s report began with a detailed disclosure of its methodology [PDF], including how participants were selected via phone (random digit dialing, RDD) and internet.
The report, which started with an opinion-based set of questions regarding the Holocaust, never once clarified what it counted as an “adult” or a “millennial.” It began:
The Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study found that seven-out-of-ten Americans (70%) say fewer people seem to care about the Holocaust than they used to and a majority (58%) believe something like the Holocaust could happen again.
The second question about general Holocaust awareness combined responses of those who said they had not heard of it with those who “are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust”:
The study also found significant gaps in knowledge of the Holocaust. 11% of US adults and over one-fifth of Millennials (22%) haven’t heard or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust.
Next were questions about the specific locations of events during the Holocaust, followed by the “40,000 concentration camps and ghettos” questions. The percentage of variation between “adults” and “millennials” in that question was just four percent. According to the results of the survey, 45 percent of adults and 49 percent of millennials failed to name any of the concentration camps or ghettos. However, the survey results did not reveal the wording of the questions asked of respondents:
Almost half of US Adults (45%) and Millennials (49%) cannot name one of the over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust.
When taken out of context, it sounded like millennials in particular fell short when it came to whatever was asked of them on the survey — but those takes appeared to deliberately leave the very similar results for non-millennial respondents out of the equation. Finally, the survey specifically referenced the questions about Auschwitz, and its findings were presented in graph form.
What the survey purportedly revealed deviated markedly from the way those findings were presented:
Once again, the survey did not detail precisely what its participants were asked. Under the table heading “Identification of Auschwitz,” columns were titled “statement” and “[percentage of US Adults Agree].” This particular finding was unnecessarily confusing, because it indicated that 40 percent of adults identified Auschwitz as a “concentration camp,” 23 percent as a “death/extermination camp,” one percent as a “forced labor camp,” and 41 percent “not sure/incorrect response.”
Underneath that, it presumably referenced the “not sure/incorrect response” finding of 41 percent (adults), contrasting it with a finding of 66 percent for “millennials.” The other three classifications (concentration camp, death/extermination camp, and forced labor camp) were seemingly not shared for millennials. No further clarification was applied and the survey moved on to unrelated questions.
Without the specific wording of the question and complete survey results for “adults” and “millennials,” it remains virtually impossible to determine what level of accuracy (if any) these results represented and whether they represent any segment of American society at all. It was impossible to tell what specifically constituted an “incorrect response” for the “identification of Auschwitz” question, or to even understand the format of the questions and answers. For instance, it was possible that a response of “a concentration camp or labor camp” was marked as “incorrect” because it straddled two answer categories.
The claim that “two-thirds of millennials did not know what Auschwitz is” was misleading at best. Most social media shares of the claim were several levels removed from its already shaky source, a phone survey (not a study) with very confusing methodology. Although it appears that no one discerned the wording of the questions asked or how answers were quantified, news outlets continued to reiterate the unproven claim that millennials did not know what Auschwitz was nearly a year after the claim first appeared.
Update, September 16 2020:
On September 16 2020, a nearly-identical set of topics began trending on Twitter, lamenting the purportedly new discovery that — again — two-thirds of millennials remained ignorant of the Holocaust (often describing the results as derived from a “study” rather than a “survey”):
Incidentally, Twitter’s Advanced Search restricted to results tweeted before January 1 2019 returned a number of tweets making the same claim, many of which appeared around the time we first published this fact check.
On September 16 2020, the Claims Conference issued a press release titled “First-Ever 50-State Survey On Holocaust Knowledge Of American Millennials And Gen Z Reveals Shocking Results,” beginning:
Gideon Taylor, President of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), [on September 16 2020] announced the release of the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, the first-ever 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z. The surprising state-by-state results highlight a worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge, a growing problem as fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors – eyewitnesses to a state-sponsored genocide – are alive to share the lessons of the Holocaust.
Nationally, there is a clear lack of awareness of key historical facts; 63 percent of all national survey respondents do not know that six million Jews were murdered and 36 percent thought that “two million or fewer Jews” were killed during the Holocaust. Additionally, although there were more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, 48 percent of national survey respondents cannot name a single one.
The state-by-state analysis yielded a particularly disquieting finding that nearly 20 percent of Millennials and Gen Z in New York feel the Jews caused the Holocaust.
“The results are both shocking and saddening and they underscore why we must act now while Holocaust survivors are still with us to voice their stories,” said Gideon Taylor. “We need to understand why we aren’t doing better in educating a younger generation about the Holocaust and the lessons of the past. This needs to serve as a wake-up call to us all, and as a road map of where government officials need to act.”
The study reveals that Wisconsin scores highest in Holocaust awareness among U.S. Millennials and Gen Z. Arkansas has the lowest Holocaust knowledge score1, with less than 2-in-10 (17 percent) of Millennials and Gen Z meeting the Holocaust knowledge criteria.
Outlets reported on the survey with headlines like “Nearly two-thirds of US young adults unaware 6m Jews killed in the Holocaust,” reiterating points made in the press release:
Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust, a new survey has found, revealing shocking levels of ignorance about the greatest crime of the 20th century.
According to the study of millennial and Gen Z adults aged between 18 and 39, almost half (48%) could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during the second world war.
Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. One in eight (12%) said they had definitely not heard, or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust.
That article’s final line described the methodology of the survey:
Data was collected from 1,000 interviews nationwide and 200 interviews in each state with young adults aged 18 to 39 selected at random.
ClaimsCon.org published the results of the survey to their website on September 16 2020, to a page titled “FIRST-EVER 50-STATE SURVEY ON HOLOCAUST KNOWLEDGE OF AMERICAN MILLENNIALS AND GEN Z REVEALS SHOCKING RESULTS” (archived here). In 2018, the survey was interpreted to indicate 66 percent of millennials were unable to explain “what Auschwitz was”; in 2020, the expanded survey found “63 percent of all national survey respondents [did] not know that six million Jews were murdered” in the Holocaust.
A section of the page titled “Major Survey Findings” broke down findings of the survey, many of which were similar to the findings in 2018:
Camps and Ghettos
• Nationally, 48 percent of U.S. Millennial and Gen Z could not name a single one of the more than 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos established during World War II. This number is reflected in individual state outcomes, with an astounding 60 percent of respondents in Texas, 58 percent in New York, and 57 percent in South Carolina, unable to name a single camp or ghetto.
• 56 percent of U.S. Millennial and Gen Z were unable to identify Auschwitz-Birkenau, and there was virtually no awareness of concentration camps and ghettos overall. Only six percent of respondents are familiar with the infamous Dachau camp, while awareness of Bergen-Belsen (three percent), Buchenwald (one percent) and Treblinka (one percent) is virtually nonexistent.
Number of Jews Murdered
• When asked how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust, 63 percent of Millennials and Gen Z did not know six million Jews were murdered. The states with the lowest scores for this question are Arkansas with 69 percent, followed by Delaware with 68 percent, Arizona with 67 percent, Mississippi and Tennessee with 66 percent, and Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont, and West Virginia with 65 percent.
• When broken down further, 36 percent of Millennials and Gen Z thought that two million or fewer Jews were murdered. Arkansas ranks as the state with the lowest awareness of this widely known data point, with 37 percent believing two million or fewer were murdered, followed by 36 percent in Georgia, Indiana and Ohio; 35 percent in Minnesota; and 34 percent in Arizona, Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire.
Responsibility for the Holocaust
• In perhaps one of the most disturbing revelations of this survey, 11 percent of U.S. Millennial and Gen Z respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust.
• The findings were more disturbing in New York where an astounding 19 percent of respondents felt Jews caused the Holocaust; followed by 16 percent in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Montana and 15 percent in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Nevada and New Mexico.
• Also troubling is the percentage of Millennials and Gen Z that have witnessed Holocaust denial or distortion on social media. Approximately half (49 percent) of U.S. Millennials and Gen Z have seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online.
• 30 percent of respondents across all 50 states indicated that they had seen Nazi symbols on their social media platforms or in their community. The state with the highest response was Nevada with 70 percent. Other states with high scores include: New York with 67 percent;
• Arizona and Texas with 64 percent; and Colorado, South Dakota and Washington with 63 percent.
For instance, the claim 48 percent of surveyed millennials and Gen Z respondents “could not name” a single concentration camp was very close to the 49 percent figure in 2018. In 2020, 56 percent of the respondents could not identify Auschwitz, versus 66 percent in 2018.
As for the most viral survey finding in 2020 — that “63 percent of Millennials and Gen Z did not know six million Jews were murdered” — the survey in 2018 was again remarkably in line with the one conducted in 2020. In 2018, respondents were provided multiple choices to select for the number of Jewish people killed in the Holocaust.
Six million was second on the list after 20 million (nine percent of millennials selected that option), and 36 percent chose the “six million” answer:
Subtracting the 36 percent from 100 percent resulted in the 64 percent number in 2018; one percent higher than the figure provided for 2020. In 2020, the results were ascending versus descending in 2018, but 37 percent selected six million, versus 36 percent in 2018:
Another aspect of the survey not strongly represented in secondary reporting on the survey was the identical result between millennials and older adults with respect to Holocaust denial:
On all three metrics, 96 percent of respondents in both groups selected “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened,” while one percent chose “No, I do not believe the Holocaust happened,” and three percent chose “Not sure”:
In 2020, 90 percent chose “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened,” while three percent chose “No, I do not believe the Holocaust happened,” and seven percent chose “Not sure.”
In short, if the “two-thirds of millennials” are ignorant about the Holocaust headline looked familiar, it’s because a very similar survey commissioned by the Claims Conference went viral in 2018. In 2020, millennials and Gen Z respondents actually scored slightly higher on several key metrics than those surveyed in 2018. As was the case the first time around, the viral survey findings were at best misleading and out of context. Moreover, in 2020, the 2018 findings were not widely examined for contrast with the 2020 survey.