Talking About the Holocaust to Children
A large group of concerned parent-members of The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism met with Elizabeth Edelstein, director of education at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, to discuss “How Do We Talk To Our Children About the Holocaust?” Parents wanted their children to be familiar with their history and heritage, yet feared traumatizing them. The subject is delicate, Edelstein explained, and emotional and intellectual readiness are key; “You know your child.” Cues are often given and provide “gentle openings.” A child may ask about family history, have seen a film such as “The Sound of Music,” or inquire about current atrocities such as Darfur.
“Do not tell everything at once and don’t dwell on numbers,” she cautioned, and remember that, “shock and fear are not good teaching tools.” Be sensitive to your child’s reactions. Holocaust education should be progressive and build upon a child’s growing abilities and understandings. Always include the things Jews did to save their humanity as well as their accomplishments, and note they are still here; showing hope is particularly important for young children. While not drawing a direct link to the Holocaust, Edelstein suggested discussions of bullying, familiar to many youngsters, as a way of explaining prejudice, scapegoating, and the need for empathy.
At the museum which, Edelstein explained, has “a complicated identity” as both a conveyer of 20th-century Jewish history with its many proud moments and a depicter of the horrors of the Holocaust, school groups (mostly from public schools and non-Jewish) are introduced to Holocaust exhibits in sixth grade. Holocaust education is mandated in New York City public schools in 8th grade world history and 10th grade global history. The museum has a curriculum guide with the stories of 13 boys and girls with a range of experiences during the Holocaust, such as being in hiding, in a convent, or in a concentration camp. Understanding 6 million victims is impossible. By learning about and identifying with one young person caught in the horror, a child feels empathy and “gets it.” Rather than judging, he realizes how difficult and complicated a time it was, and the agonizing need to make “choiceless choices.”
Age-appropriate books can aid Holocaust understanding and foster exploration of human values. Good examples include several from adults reflecting upon the events and from young victims writing about their own experiences. Dr. Seuss’ (Theodor Geisel) Yertle the Turtle is a stand-in for Hitler. Hana Volavkova’s beautiful I Never Saw a Butterfly includes children’s drawings and poems from the concentration camp Terezin. Youngsters identify with The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank; it has sold over 25 million copies. Readers over 15 get caught up in the compelling account of concentration camp existence in Elie Wiesel’s Night. The Pulitzer-prize winning Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman show, in cartoon format, the author’s father as a victim mouse in a world dominated by Nazi cats. Alexandra Zapruder’s Salvaged Pages contains entries from the diaries of 22 Holocaust victims aged 12 to 22, reflecting their fears, dreams, questions and efforts to survive, though only 6 did.
Probably typical of most parents, The City Congregation members were thoughtful and concerned in the discussion, protective of their children, and eager for guidance on this most difficult and sensitive question: How do we talk to our children about the Holocaust? When do we start? What do we say? #