How to Teach Children About the Holocaust (And How… Not To.)

Dear Josep,

You will be pleased to know that I have received several positive reactions to your foreword. Last week, for example, I found myself in a lengthy discussion with a bookseller about the book. When he asked me how you felt about the letters, I told him that you wrote a foreword about it, and he was quite enthusiastic. It seems I was correct that people would take an interest in your perspective. 🙂

One reaction I didn’t expect was actually from my dear friend Abi. You see, she studied education at one of the mostly highly regarded colleges for educators in the country, and there was one detail from your story that horrified her: that your school had taken you to see Schindler’s List when you were only twelve years old.

Before she said anything, it hadn’t occurred to me that that might have been a little young. But especially when you mentioned that during that same period they also had you read Man’s Search for Meaning and that you found it “brutal,” it struck me that maybe she was right.

Turns out, the actress who played the girl in the red coat was eleven when she saw it, and it was a little early for her, too…

As I’ve mentioned, I actually never saw Schindler’s List from beginning to end–just parts of it in between naps on the bus from Warsaw to Krakow during my trip to Poland. And I read Man’s Search for Meaning a few years ago, as an adult. I don’t know how they might have affected me if I’d been exposed to them at twelve years of age. Like you, I was a sensitive kid… but apparently unlike you, I was already six years into a very carefully constructed Holocaust education at that point.

You see, Abi explained, Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust museum and research center in Jerusalem, has specific guidelines for introducing children to this difficult topic. When I related my memories of how I had learned about the Holocaust, Abi said that what I described fit neatly into the guidelines she had been taught: a gentle story taught by the school principal when I was in first grade; a phone call with my grandmother; age-appropriate books (such as I Never Saw Another Butterfly and A Place to Hide); Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies; testimonies from survivors; visiting museums; and finally the climax of my Holocaust education, my trip to Poland in eleventh grade.

And when Abi pointed out the contrast between that gentle, gradual exposure and watching Schindler’s List, I was like, “Geez… no wonder he was traumatized!”

I suspect that the staff of your school did not feel a need to introduce you quite that gradually because, well, the Holocaust was not really part of your national history. There is a huge difference between teaching a group of students that “once there was a group of people massacred simply for being different,” and “once there was a group of people who could very easily have been you who were massacred because they were of your heritage.” Still, the Holocaust is a very difficult and disturbing topic for anyone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t the only sensitive child who was hit perhaps a little too hard by this material.

Then again, if you hadn’t learned it so brutally, would it still have had such a strong impact on you? Would you have taken the same interest in Jews and Judaism? Would you still have ended up the curious recipient of my e-mails, immortalized as the “Josep” of Letters to Josep?!

Who knows? Maybe not! So I, for one, cannot hold it against your teachers. 😉

But. The conversation inspired me to search for the Yad Vashem guidelines on educating children about the Holocaust. I found that there is a whole website dedicated to it, with detailed instructions for educators and recommended materials and educational activities, but it’s all in Hebrew.

Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a summary of those guidelines in English. (Which you may, in turn, want to translate to Catalan, and send to your former school. 😛 )

Before I begin, however, I must point out that Yad Vashem is an Israeli organization, and their guidelines are oriented accordingly. I think that with non-Jewish children, you don’t need to be quite this delicate and methodical. Nonetheless, it’s important to be aware of the child’s developmental stage and not expose a child to material that he is not emotionally equipped to cope with–Jewish or not–and to provide a supportive environment to help the child process what she has learned.


Preschool

Educating children on the Holocaust at this age primarily involves making sense of what the children have already heard and experienced from outside sources, and reinforcing a sense of distance and therefore safety.

It’s impossible for a Jewish child to grow up without hearing anything about the Holocaust. Israeli children, in particular, will hear the chilling sound of the memorial siren and see the world coming to a halt on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They are going to need to be prepared for this. Our job as educators is to give them enough information to reassure them without giving them details that will frighten or disturb them.

Unfortunately I’ve had ample opportunities to read up on talking to young children about scary events in the world. The absolute worst thing you can do is pretend nothing happened. Children are extremely perceptive and they know when the adults around them are scared, shaken, or sad, even when the adults don’t express those feelings in front of them. So hiding information will only scare them more; their imaginations can be much scarier than reality!

Therefore, as with any frightening topic that children are exposed to, the idea is to give them the information they need while emphasizing the positive outcomes and reinforcing their sense of safety and feeling protected.

When we’re talking about the Holocaust, then, Yad Vashem recommends that we explain that “a long, long time ago, before you were born, in a land very far away, there were some very mean people who wanted to hurt Jews, and that makes people sad. But,” we will emphasize, “there were other people who protected and rescued them.” Since the children may have heard the word “Holocaust” or “Shoah” in Hebrew, we explain that this word means “disaster” or “something that happened that makes people very sad.” If they have heard of Nazis, we can explain that this is what the mean people were called.

Elementary School

Ages 6-8

In the first two years of elementary school, Yad Vashem recommends introducing the students to the topic in the following manner:

  • The educator who speaks to them about it should be one who has a significant and regular relationship with the students. This will help them feel supported, safe, and comfortable bringing up questions and concerns.
  • The topic should be introduced gently in the form of a story. Stories are a universal coping tool that humans have been using for thousands of years, and the familiar framework of the beginning, middle, and end helps give the information in a way that is safe and predictable.
  • At this age, the story should focus on one character. This allows the students to empathize and connect to the information on a human level, without being too overwhelmed by details and possibilities.
  • The story should introduce some basic concepts such as ghettos and yellow stars, and give a general sense of what was lost–families, communities, cultural assets, ideas–but should focus on overcoming hardship, heroism, and rescue. It is very important not to transmit a sense of helplessness to elementary-school-aged children.
  • The activity should not include simulations or graphic scenes or descriptions. Children at this age can be very disturbed by such images, even if (maybe especially if) it’s in their imaginations.

Ages 8-10

At this age we continue along the general lines outlined above. At this age, however, we expand the stories to focus on families rather than single individuals. This allows us to add more characters to the story and focus on the relationships between them. We can also expand the conversation to include universal ideas about taking a stand, such as in the case of the Righteous Among the Nations (what we call non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust).

Ages 10-12

Towards the end of elementary school we continue the trend of gently expanding the stories to include deeper and more difficult concepts. While we still want to be telling stories that focus on characters who survive, the story may also include characters with a relationship to the main character who perish. We still want to focus on rescue and helping one another, and not on violence and cruelty.

Middle School (Ages 12-15)

In middle school we can deepen the conversation, taking into account the emotional maturity of the students (which may vary widely). Yad Vashem recommends expanding the conversation from families to communities at this point. Now is the time to discuss questions of heritage and identity and the relationship between the individual and the society in the context of the Holocaust. At this point in the Israeli educational curriculum, this historical period has not yet been covered in history class, so when discussing the Holocaust we begin to fill in historical details they may be missing.

High School (Ages 15-18)

At this point the students have reached a level of emotional maturity where they can be exposed to the most difficult material about the Holocaust, and the conversation involves sorting out historical details, discussing ethical and moral questions, and questions of continuity and giving meaning to the deep crisis that befell our people. Most Israeli schools organize an educational trip to Poland to visit the ghettos and death camps, as discussed in last year’s post, to students in eleventh or twelfth grade (age 16-18).


If one were to ask me where to place viewing Schindler’s List and reading Man’s Search for Meaning along this timeline, I think I would recommend saving both for high school. I might consider exposing a particularly mature twelve-year-old to these materials, but certainly not as the first material he or she would encounter on the topic.

Instead, I would have recommended starting you off with Anne Frank’s diary.

It’s been translated into 67 languages, including Catalan, and several movies have been made about it.

The diary gives a vivid glimpse into the way families coped with hiding from the Nazis, but it is written from the hopeful and playful perspective of an insightful young teenager. It does not contain graphic descriptions of violence, and while Anne did not survive the Holocaust, the tragic end of the story is not recorded in her diary. The information on the raid and Anne’s eventual death in Bergen-Belsen are given in the afterword. I think this helps soften the effect without hiding the enormity of the tragedy, making it a really good introduction for an older child.

Just saying!

Love,

Daniella

2 thoughts on “How to Teach Children About the Holocaust (And How… Not To.)

  1. I don not recall being traumatized by that. i remember feeling very sad by the fact that humane being could treat other human beings with such cruelty. But we were not brought to the cinema all of the sudden. The movie was part of an ongoing process that we started at school talking about the second world war and the Shoa. And the movie happened to be premiering that year, so it was an opportunity not to miss.

    Also I believe that 12 year-old kids are more mature than we really think they are 🙂

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