WASHINGTON -- Just three days before the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a survey released yesterday found that one in three Americans are open to the possibility that the Holocaust never occurred at all.
The survey by the Roper Organization for the American Jewish Committee also discovered that more than one-third of U.S. adults and half of all high school students do not know that the term "Holocaust" refers to Nazi Germany's extermination of 6 million Jews.
"The numbers of people who will look at the title [of the Holocaust museum] and have no idea what is inside that building demonstrates the level of ignorance that we have to combat," said David Singer, director of research and publications for the committee. "It is appalling and shocking to find substantial percentages of both adults and youths open to the possibility that the Holocaust never happened."
In the first study of its kind, the Roper Organization surveyed 992 adults and 506 high school students last fall, asking both open-ended and multiple-choice questions to discover the extent of knowledge about the Holocaust. The margin of error was 4 percentage points for adults and 5 percentage points for high school students.
Among the survey's findings: 34 percent of adults and 37 percent of high school students said it was "possible" the Holocaust had never occurred. Sixty-five percent of adults and 72 percent of high school students could not identify 6 million as the commonly accepted number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. And only 42 percent of both groups knew that the symbol Jews were forced to wear on their clothes during World War II was a yellow star.
"Depressingly, it turns out that people know very little," Mr. Singer said. "Even for the most basic information, there is a serious knowledge gap."
But others, including survivors and scholars of the Holocaust, said that they were not surprised by the lack of knowledge about the Holocaust.
"We did some focus groups when we were planning the museum and discovered that a lot of people do not know very much about the Holocaust or even have much interest in it," said Bill Lowenberg, vice chairman of the Holocaust museum council and a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
"Lots of our students just don't know about the Holocaust," agreed Stephen Berk, a history professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and a specialist in the Holocaust. "People are not history conscious . . . and each generation has its own formative events."
What did surprise Mr. Berk and others was the lack of knowledge among older Americans who were alive during World War II and the Holocaust.
The survey found that knowledge about the Holocaust depended more on education than age. There was no significant variation in results between adults over and under the age of 60.
For adults, 79 percent of college graduates knew of the Holocaust, compared to 63 percent of all adults. Fifty-four percent of high school students who identified themselves as college-bound knew what the term Holocaust meant, compared to 39 percent of non-college-bound students.
The Holocaust museum is to be dedicated Thursday by President Clinton and will open to the general public next week.