At What Age Should You Teach Your Children About the Holocaust?
Today is Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s on our calendar, though I totally forgot about it. Hence why I had no idea why Josh chose to broach the topic of teaching the twins about the Holocaust in the car this morning on the way to the Metro. The reason for doing it now would be in order to introduce them to a survivor before all of the survivors are gone. Meaning, we could wait five years to tell them about the Holocaust, but in that time, how likely would it be that there would be people from which to hear a first-hand account? Anyone with strong memories of that time period would be in their 70s or 80s by now.
My knee-jerk reaction was against broaching the topic, and I said that you could learn about the Holocaust without a first-hand account. I yanked out the Crusades as my example. Not too many Jews around to interview on that event; and yet we study it, empathize, imagine, and attempt to not repeat it via lessons learned. The irony, of course, is that my Holocaust ethics and literature class is what brought Josh and I together. I needed a film for a lecture I was writing, and the filmmaker told me that a Mr. Joshua Ford in Washington, D.C. had the film copy in his possession. So Josh sent it to me up in Massachusetts. My lecture was about the ethics of writing Holocaust fiction when there were still survivors alive and the need for Holocaust non-fiction. Fiction, my thesis stated, could wait. Recording first-hand accounts well could not.
Josh and I both grew up with access to Holocaust survivors, which meant that the topic of the Holocaust was taught at a very young age. I remember talking about it at age eight because a teacher in my school was a survivor. And I was a lot younger than that when I first learned what the numerical tattoos meant. I remember third grade and up went to the Kristallnacht assembly. How much did we actually understand about the events and how much was just a cursory level of information — I have no idea. But the point is that it was never an event I learned about in one day; where I was blissfully ignorant the day before and suddenly schooled the day after. The Holocaust was something that I just always somehow knew about, felt comfortable asking about.
I would sort of like it to be that way for the twins as well but I’m not sure if it’s as easy now to make it that way.
The fact is that my generation had the topic of the Holocaust occur organically. My teacher had a tattoo on her arm so we discussed the tattoo on her arm. Survivors were all around; they were in a lot of my friends’ families. I am in that first generation of children born post-Holocaust. Our parents were either alive during the Holocaust (and in some cases — were in the camps) or were born immediately after. And in that way, the Holocaust wasn’t a history event insomuch as it was like September 11th, a recently-enough-happened event that people still wanted to talk about. The twins know vaguely about September 11th and they knew about Osama Bin Laden because we discussed it, twice. But the Holocaust feels farther away now.
Which is why this decision is so important now — I am the first generation born after the Holocaust but the twins are in the last generation to get to speak to a survivor first-hand.
I will admit that much more than knowing survivors first-hand, the book Night by Elie Wiesel was more important in giving me an emotional tie to the Holocaust. My family was from the same town of Sighet, and when I read that book, my family members were in the background, the other townspeople. My great aunt has pictures of those family members, and I counted on that book coupled with the pictures being the experience that changed the way they viewed the Holocaust — not as something that happened to someone else, but as something that happened in this world and we are all accountable for the events that occur in this world; all affected by both the terribleness and wonderfulness of humans. That book and those pictures were going to be my way of teaching the next generation to never forget. But will it really be enough? If there are other things we could do now, shouldn’t we do them now?
I know how to talk about difficult topics with children (thought if I didn’t, Kveller wrote a great guide) but the question is more in the vein of should. Do you push the knowledge now in order to give them that experience of speaking first-hand to a survivor, knowing full well that I was able to hear that information when I was their age, or do you withhold the knowledge for the time being and give them more years of blissful ignorance? My answer has changed over the course of writing this post.
Photo Credit: Joshuapaquin via Flickr.