In 2020, The Claims Conference ran a 50-state survey of Americans aged 18-to-39, asking what they knew about the Holocaust. More than 20% said it happened in the First World War, and 15% said it was either exaggerated or a myth. Results like these had been seen before. Our knowledge of the Holocaust has been declining for years. But there’s a surprising twist: 80% of respondents also said it’s important for schools to teach the Holocaust. New Holocaust museums have opened everywhere from Orlando to Cincinnati; and the slew of movies, TV shows, and books about it shows no signs of slowing. Why is our knowledge of the Holocaust declining if we’re so interested in it?
The answer lies in our “wildly insufficient” education. There are 33 states with no mandate to teach the Holocaust, which makes pop culture the first source of information for many Americans. With its need to entertain, pop culture will always blur historical reality with fiction, creating myths in the process. One example is the myth that Jewish people enabled their own genocide through obedience. This myth can be felt in everything from NBC’s miniseries Holocaust (1978) to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). In Holocaust, Erik Dorf, a fictional SS man played by Michael Moriarty, is transfixed by the Jews’ obedience. He tells Reinhard Heydrich that they go to their death as if it were “a religious rite.” In Schindler’s List, most Jewish characters are just pawns in the game of good versus evil being played between Oskar Schindler and Amon Göth. For all their differences, Holocaust and Schindler’s List show Jews in much the same way. Quiet except when hysterical, confused except when obeying orders.
Still, there’s plenty to admire in both productions. But pop culture has distilled the myth of Jewish obedience over time, boiling off any sense of nuance in the process. Hunters, the 2020 Amazon Prime drama, follows Jews hunting former Nazis in the late 1970s. One flashback scene shows Auschwitz guards using Jews on a giant chessboard cut into the grass – as literal pawns. Nothing like it ever happened. The Auschwitz Memorial Museum called it a “dangerous and foolish caricature.” (They said similar things about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Tattooist of Auschwitz.)
The myth of Jewish obedience is an invitation to rubberneck at suffering – and we find it irresistible. So irresistible that pop culture is incentivized to exaggerate it. This doesn’t help us to think critically about the Holocaust or why it happened. It’s also why we rarely see disobedient Jews on the big screen. Resisters and rebels like Hanns Alexander, the German-Jewish soldier who captured Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss; or Zivia Lubetkin, the Polish-Jewish fighter who was a leading figure in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and who later testified against Adolf Eichmann.
To borrow from slang, one reason for the myth’s persistence is that it hits us “right in the feels.” It enables pop culture to turn the Holocaust into a saccharine tragedy that manipulates our emotions. This stops us from building an informed understanding. Worse still, it can allow antisemites to feel the disgust they want to feel. Disgust at Jews’ imagined wretchedness and weakness. This leads to another reason for the myth’s persistence: growing antisemitism in America. In recent years, far-Right conspiracy theories about Jews have gained a place in mainstream politics.
Sinister questions about Judaism’s role in society have grown in the ruins of fallen Jewish figures, like the Sackler family, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffrey Epstein. Specious comparisons between the Holocaust and compliance with measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 are one consequence of the myth of Jewish obedience blending with all this. Such comparisons portray Jews as witless victims par excellence.
Jewish people around the world will mark “Yom Hashoah,” or “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day,” on April 7-8. Its premise is different from the UN’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It asks us to remember both victims and heroes; or perhaps more accurately, to remember victims as heroes. There’s no reason that victimhood and heroism can’t interlock in our collective memory. There were Jewish acts of resistance and rebellion all through the Nazi era.
Understanding them is crucial to understanding why the Nazi project failed, particularly in its aim to murder 11 million Jews. In that sense, Holocaust Remembrance Day shows us how we might reverse America’s declining knowledge of the Holocaust: by folding Jewish resistance into our teaching. This year, that message is more urgent than ever.
The writer is the founder and CEO of The Ninth Candle, the Illinois-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to end antisemitism by sharing knowledge. He holds a PhD on Nazi propaganda.