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Our obligation to be educated about Hitler and the Holocaust

We hear a great many preening chants about "Making America Great Again," whatever that means. But how can America make any claims to greatness until it becomes literate again? The two sort of go hand in hand.

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Daniel Ruth
, Tampa Bay Times Columnist, Tampa Bay Times

We hear a great many preening chants about "Making America Great Again," whatever that means. But how can America make any claims to greatness until it becomes literate again? The two sort of go hand in hand.

A recent survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Memorial Claims Against Germany has exposed a gaping and vexing gap in knowledge about the Holocaust among Americans in general and millennials in particular.

Researchers polled 1,350 Americans about their knowledge of the Holocaust, and the results were forehead-slapping. Forty-one percent of Americans and (gulp) 66 percent of millennials had no clue about Auschwitz.

Equally troubling, the survey noted only 39 percent of Americans said they were aware that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected to lead Germany, while 52 percent falsely believe he took power by force.

Some 45 percent of Americans cannot name a single Nazi concentration camp. Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka elude the mind.

And when pushed, 31 percent of all adults and 41 percent of millennials wrongly estimate only 2 million Jews were murdered by the Third Reich, when the actual total is about 6 million.

So large swaths of millennials probably can name every Kardashian, or all of the contestants competing on American Idol. But they can only offer up a glazed stare if asked about the meaning of the Final Solution. And no, the term does not refer to the season-ending episode of Survivor.

This does not bode well for our future.

If younger generations know next to nothing about one of the worst acts of genocide in human history, then they certainly have no understanding about the rise of Nazism across Europe or the essence of the evil men who led the movement.

And if you don't know about that, then you can't know what led to World War II. And if you don't know about that, then you are out to lunch in understanding the creation of Israel and 70-plus years of Middle East turmoil, or the roots of the Cold War, or the Iron Curtain, or the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after the war.

It is estimated that there are only about 400,000 living Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, many of whom dedicated their lives to making sure the horrors they endured are never forgotten. Or repeated. But they are fighting a pitched battle against time and indifference.

The dire illiteracy with respect to the Holocaust is a damning indictment of American education, which all too often gives short shrift to the teaching of history.

And we are seeing the price to be paid for that apathy played out in real time with the rise of virulent anti-Semitic white nationalist movements across Europe in Britain, France, Hungary and yes, even in Germany, which should send a tremor down the spine.

We are not immune to the spread of Nazis in our midst.

Last year, a "Unite the Right" rally took place in Charlottesville, Va., ostensibly to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. But the event quickly became a kind of 2017 version of Kristallnacht, as skinheads, neo-Nazis and other assorted racist, extremist thugs took to the streets carrying torches and shouting "Jews will not replace us," as well as a well-known Brown Shirt-era chant about "blood and soil."

If you needed additional proof of the Holocaust attention deficit in this country, look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It certainly didn't help that the president of the United States, who rose to office on a wave of prejudiced fear-mongering, later suggested there were some "good people" among the trolling anti-Semites who had threatened Jewish worshippers trapped in their synagogue.

Arlington National Cemetery and other final resting places of American military personnel who fought the Nazis in World War II ought to mean something. It ought to mean we are a people who not only remembers their service but remains vigilant about ensuring that anything like Hitler's rise or the Holocaust never occurs again.

We are on the verge of failing in that sacred obligation.

Some 58 percent of Americans believe something akin to the Holocaust could happen again. And it has in places like Darfur, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia.

But here? Could it happen here?

Since malevolence tends to thrive on the crusty mold spores of ignorance, we should be concerned. Very concerned.

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