Teaching Children about the Holocaust

It can be quite difficult for some non-Jews to grasp the profound depth of feeling that many Jews have about the Holocaust. I’ve heard non-Jews says, “Why dwell on something so terrible? Just get on with your life.” Others fear that it will frighten the children or that negative thinking will bring on negative events.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, teaching your children about the Holocaust is challenging. How do you tell an innocent child about such evil? We adults want there to be fairness and justice, yet nothing in the story of the Shoah supports the idea that ultimately good triumphs. Yes, some lived, but too many died.

Begin by understanding your own child(ren). Some kids have a lot of bluster but are quite vulnerable inside. Others are very clear about their fears. Next talk to a rabbi. Rabbis have to deal with this question all the time. Meet with your rabbi and discuss what you want your child to know. He or she will be able to point out age appropriate times for various messages. The rabbi will also have suggestions for books to share with your child.

Some true life experiences shared with me about kids’ reactions to learning about the Holocaust.

1. My daughter was nine and a member of our synagogue’s children’s choir. They were asked to sing at a community Holocaust program. After they sang they went to sit with their parents. The first survivor to speak was a woman who said she had lost seven brothers during the Holocaust. My daughter whispered to me, “Does she mean brothers, like David?” (David is her little brother.) “Yes,” I told her. She promptly put her head on my lap and went to sleep. I don’t think she wants to hear anymore about people losing their siblings.

2. My kids were 8 and 12 when we went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. I had asked my rabbi about it and he assured me that the exhibits had barriers around them that were high enough that little children couldn’t see over them. He also said there was a part of the museum just for kids. We started there, at the kids’ section. It was still powerful and painful. When we came out of it my eight year old turned to my husband and said, “Let’s go now.” My 12 year old said, “Mom, I want to see the rest!” So my husband left with our younger child and I took our daughter through the entire museum. She had to see every single thing.

3. Our son (age 16) went on a class trip to DC and they took the kids to the Holocaust Museum. I asked him how it was. “Traumatic, of course.” I wondered whether I should have sent him.

4. Our daughter is in middle school and they were assigned the Diary of Anne Frank. She loved it! She asked me to get her more books on kids who lived during the Holocaust. Yes, she thinks it’s terrible but she wants to know everything about it.

You will have to decide for your family whether you will go to a memorial program and whether you will take your children.

Finally, I want to share with you a teaching that I have heard from many rabbis. The Jewish approach to evil is not to ask “Why? Why did this happen to me/her/them?” Rather it is to ask, “What do we do about it?”

None of us can know why the universe is as it is. But all of us can act to make it better for all those living on our planet.