Teaching Children About The Holocaust
By Debra Roth Kane
Special to the Jewish Times
Never forget. Implicit in these two words is a promise to share our painful history with future generations. We have to tell our children about the Holocaust. How should we do this and when?
It’s a topic that is perhaps all the more on our minds in the month of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We need our children to know about the Holocaust, but sharing this information can be difficult. It is hard to know what is age-appropriate. Some things are difficult to know and tell at any age.
Still, there are ways to introduce this topic with sensitivity to children of middle school-age and younger. Laura Shaw Frank is the mother of four young children. She teaches Jewish history and Judaic studies to high school students at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. She acknowledges both the difficulties and the necessity of beginning to talk about the Holocaust with children.
“It’s very difficult to begin because it’s very frightening. As a child in the ’60s, I remember wondering where was the best place to hide when the Nazis came. I picked a spot,” she recalls.
Frank believes that you can begin teaching the youngest children by being very vague about the details. “Keep it an abstract story about an evil man named Hitler, like the story of Pharaoh,” she says. But once children are in middle school or even later grades in lower school, Frank adds, you can start talking about the ghettos, about hunger and suffering and separation from relatives.
Rachel Eisler, mother of Leah, 10, and Harry, 7, says her daughter became interested in the topic of the Holocaust because her grandfather came to this country during World War II and Leah wanted to know why. Eisler chose a common and popular means of exploring the topic: literature.
Leah read “Alan and Naomi” by Myron Levoy, the story of an American-Jewish boy who meets a French-Jewish girl who has been deeply affected by the war. Eisler, a high school teacher and poet, stresses the value of literature and this book in particular. “This book really tackles the issues of empathy and action in a brave way. It gives you a way in, though there are brutal moments,” she says.
Eisler regards educating her children about the Holocaust as a long-term project. “It’s not like ‘the Holocaust conversation.’ It’s a series of conversations, trying to be age appropriate. I believe when kids ask a question, they deserve to be given something back, though not necessarily everything. I’m mindful of the fact that a brief answer leaves the door open to more questions,” she says.
Stephanie Love, mother of Montana, 10, recommends another avenue for learning about the Holocaust. She describes the movie “Paper Clips” as “the most wonderful movie we have ever seen.” It’s the true story of how a group of middle school students in Tennessee decided to honor the victims of the Holocaust by collecting one paper clip for each individual exterminated by the Nazis. Love found this a valuable and non-frightening introduction to the topic of the Holocaust for her daughter, who at the time she saw it was age six.
Another resource is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. While the museum visitors’ guide specifies that most of the exhibits are appropriate only for those age 11 or older, there is an exhibit, “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story,” designed for children ages eight and up.
Jill Halbrecht took her son Max, 9, to the Holocaust Museum on the spur of the moment. When they arrived, Max, who since age 5 has wanted to be an architect, was randomly given the identity card of a boy named Meyer “Maxwell” Rodriguez Garcia, who in 1933 was 9 and wanted to be an architect.
“What are the odds?” says Halbrecht. “You should have seen his face.”
A member of a Jewish family who had lived in Holland since fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, Garcia went into hiding in 1943, spent a year in Auschwitz before being liberated, then emigrated to the United States. Once home, Halbrecht and her son did an Internet search and found an e-mail address for Garcia.
Max wrote to him; Garcia wrote an incredible letter back. As Halbrecht describes it: “He said, ‘If you ever want to know anything about concentration camps or about being an architect, write to me.’ Max was so proud to receive the letter. And it brought the history home to him.”
Halbrecht notes that a friend of hers was reluctant to take her child to the Holocaust Museum because, the friend told her, her child was too empathetic. Halbrecht thinks that such empathy can be a good thing.
“It was extraordinary for my son to get the match that he did to a boy named Max. The whole point is to make it personal. We’re Jews; this happened to us,” she says.
When Halbrecht’s children asked her outright whether something like the Holocaust could happen again, she answers, “We told them it could happen again. But the museum and everything we do as Jews to remember helps to prevent it.”
When teaching the youngest children, “Keep it an abstract story about an evil man named Hitler, like the story of Pharaoh,”says Frank.
Schools and the Holocaust
As children get older, schools throughout our community, both secular and non-secular, take a hand in teaching this topic. “The school can teach facts, what happened when and how. We can’t ask parents to do that. Their job is to emphasize our responsibility as Jews to remember, to honor the lives and memory of the victims and the survivors,” says Frank, adding “It’s important for parents to share their own family stories.”
Jon Aaron teaches the Holocaust to eighth graders at McDonogh School (as well as the confirmation class at Beth El Congregation). He notes that his students have widely varying prior knowledge of the topic, often full of holes and misinformation. Through a team effort that includes social studies teachers and English teachers, Aaron feels they can address the topic with real depth. As part of the unit, students meet a survivor and visit the Holocaust Museum.
Several key ideas resonate with both educators and parents. One is that the Holocaust should be discussed hand-in-hand with larger issues of tolerance.
Allene Gutin, department chair for Hebrew and Judaics at The Day School at Baltimore Hebrew, begins her Holocaust unit with an “X Men” lesson, highlighting the movie’s focus on “what happens when society can’t tolerate people who are different.” At McDonogh, students study the Holocaust immediately after studying “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
“Our goal is to study the Holocaust as it relates to the concept of finding one’s voice; we look at the Holocaust as a global call for voices to be heard,” says Aaron. “Whether we are discussing injustice in the courtroom or in Hitler’s Germany, the moral piece is huge.”
Both parents and educators recognize the prevailing need for sensitivity during conversations with children on this topic, especially when introducing details such as what happened in the concentration camps. “You must let them know you know it’s difficult material — but it’s our duty to know it,” says Frank.
Window on a Classroom
“I go around the room and I ask my students to take out a pencil and write down how many people lived in Germany when Hitler came to power. The numbers range from a couple of million to several hundred million. Then I ask how many Jews lived there. The students who low-balled the number of Germans are now thinking about ‘six million.’ I give them the actual figures: there were 65 million German citizens in 1933; 500,000 were Jews.
One kid will wonder aloud how six million could have died. Another kid will contribute that most came from Poland. Discussion starts. What do 65 million have to fear from 500,000? I show them propaganda posters. Where did the fear come from? Why did people follow? None of it is simple, but I try to explain it. The students are young, but they can grapple with it, especially in the context of their own lives, the bully on the playground, who dares to stand up to him.”
Jon Aaron, McDonogh School
Many extraordinary books have been written on the subject of the Holocaust. The following books were recommended by parents and teachers interviewed for this article.Know your child and how they would handle these stories before sharing these books.
“Keeping the Promise: A Torah’s Journey” by Tami Lehman-Wilzig and Craig Orback (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2004)
The moving true story of a Torah that was used to hold a bar mitzvah in Bergen-Belsen and ended up going into space with Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished on the Columbia. Illustrated. 6 and up, youngest ages to be read with an adult.
“The Tattooed Torah” by Marvell Ginsburg (URJ Books and Music, 1983)
The inspiring story, based on actual events, of a little Torah, “tattooed” by the Nazis, but rescued and given a new home in America. Illustrated. 7 and up
“Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry (Laurel Leaf, 1998)
Winner of the Newbery Medal, this novel describes a friendship between two 10-year-old girls in wartime Denmark and the courage one shows in helping the Danish resistance to save her Jewish friend’s life. 9 and up
“The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Scholastic Press, 2003)
The story of Helmuth Hubener, a Hamburg teenager who joined the Hitler youth only to discover its profound conflict with his Mormon faith. The story is told in flashbacks from the cell where he awaits execution for treason.10 and up
“The Devil’s Arithmetic” by Jane Yolen (Puffin Modern Classics, 2004)
Twelve-year-old Hannah is transported back to a 1940’s Polish village where she experiences the horrors of the Holocaust. 11 and up
“Alan and Naomi” by Myron Levoy (Backinprint.com, 2007)
The award-winning story of a friendship between an American Jewish boy and a French girl scarred by the war. 12 and up
“Other Half of Life: A Novel Based on the True Story of the MS St. Louis” by Kim Ablon Whitney (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009)
2009 Parents’ Choice Silver Honor winner, this novel tells the story of the refugee ship St. Louis, turned away from U.S. shores in, as Eisler describes it, “an emblematic moment of intolerance.” 13 and up