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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.


1 Corey Feldman { 04.19.12 at 1:06 pm }

OK I didn’t realize and I am now completely terrified they will be discussing it in their jewish preschool. 3 and 5 is just too young. Its a good question I have thought about and dread, like explaining why our shul is lined with boulders. I think I was told around 5, or at least heard it through adult conversation and asked. But I don’t want my 5 year old knowing about that kind of hate. I was cringing the other Shabbat when the kids were sitting around torah tots and talking about the downing of the egyptians and the killing of the first born…

2 a { 04.19.12 at 1:14 pm }

I’m not very proactive about things like this – I find myself spouting off about something, and the next thing I know, I have to work out an explanation for my daughter. So, I’m totally unqualified to give an opinion.

However, if you make note of the day in some way, your children will notice and the organic discussion can follow.

3 Chickenpig { 04.19.12 at 2:01 pm }

I think my kids are too young to grasp the concept. We had survivors come in to my third grade class, one of them actually still had the striped clothes he wore in the concentration camp. I think 8 was a good age. I am more concerned with how ready my kids are vrs hearing a first hand account. Right now they are so innocent. Trying to explain to explain to them that blacks weren’t treated fairly because of the color of their skin was hard enough, (I haven’t tried to explain slavery yet). The holocaust will have to wait. After all, in the future there will be no more survivors, but we will still need to talk about it.

4 loribeth { 04.19.12 at 2:08 pm }

Wow, good question, & I have no answers for you. I’m trying to remember when I first learned about it (bearing in mind that I am not Jewish). My great-uncle fought in WWII in North Africa & Italy, so I had a general awareness of the war — and I found some children’s books about WWI & WWII when I was in Grade 3 or 4, & was fascinated by them, so that could have (should have??) included at least some basic information. I also remember reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” when I was 10 or 11.

There must be some books or resource material out there on this subject… if not the Holocaust specifically, then talking with your children about difficult subjects.

5 Mina { 04.19.12 at 2:25 pm }

I live in a place where everywhere you go, there is something that is brewing history. But I have to say that by now the entire “let’s never forget the horrors born when reason sleeps” movement is losing momentum. the more the time passes, the more it becomes more abstract.

Quite unrelated to the topic, I went to Dachau not because I particularly wanted to, but because some friends were visiting and wanted to go. And there, I found myself uneasy to go inside. I volunteered to stay outside with the children (8 and 4) who were aching to go, but were not allowed. The 8 year old finally managed to sneak inside and see some cells. Not knowing much about it, she just noticed they were small. I, knowing quite a lot about it, having studied and read voluntarily about it, just did not find the will to go inside.
At the time of the visit I was reading something that was taking place precisely during that time in history. I cannot remember what, if you can believe that. But the scene that marked me most was the one in which a group of people, mostly Jews, were hiding, and among them there was a mother who was trying her best to make her infant stop crying, nursing, singing, shushing, all in the quietest manner possible, so that they were not found, and in the morning they found out that the reason for which the baby stopped crying and they were not found out was because he was finally smothered to death. And the mother went mad. And somehow all that is linked in my head and that scene is Dachau for me. I can’t explain how heavy my heart gets every time I think about it.

I think that no matter how much we try, we will not be able to make our children understand history the way we do. George will never quite grasp the meaning of what it was like to grow up during communism, with no tv, no electricity, no heat, food rations, and being aware of what you should and should not say from an age when one did not know what “aware”meant. Just like I will never know how it was to live in a bombed city and the food rations during the war. Intellectually, yes, one can know that. Emotionally no, I do not think so.

So, to finally answer your question, they can learn about it now. Knowing about it does not mean that they will be emotionally marked by it, and maybe they can make it less abstract when they are able to understand more. I plan to tell George about our history from early on, but expect him to understand a lot later.

I would be very interested to know what you decided.

6 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.19.12 at 4:35 pm }

A wow revelation: “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.”

If it were me, I wouldn’t exactly push the knowledge but rather make it available to them. Are there books for children written about the Holocaust? Maybe introduce the idea through that and follow up with, “Next week we are going to have the chance to talk with someone who was there, someone who knows the story first hand.”

And only if they balked would I consider not meeting with the first-handers.

It’s just too big an opportunity to let discomfort have its way. Unless it’s beyond discomfort to full freak out.

7 Kristin { 04.19.12 at 4:43 pm }

I think this question fits in the same category as teaching kids about sex…there is no age that is too young. You just have to make sure the information you give them is age appropriate. The twins are at the age that they can handle a fair amount of knowledge but they don’t need the gory details yet.

8 jjiraffe { 04.19.12 at 5:59 pm }

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Darcy had relatives in Poland who were killed in the Holocaust. He and his parents went to the small town where they lived and were deported from, and spoke with residents who remembered what happened. This was about 10 years ago. It made a huge impact on all of them.

My twins go to a Jewish pre-school, and they have been learning about anti-semitism in small doses, like the classic story of Haman at Purim. They know that Haman wanted to “kill all the Jews.” But that’s ancient history, and is less scary?

I went to Dachau too, and it was awful, but somehow more terrifying to me was visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. The Holocaust seemed more real to me, there, and more agonizingly vivid. I walked out of there, dazed, concussed almost. I almost threw up. Maybe that’s because, for me, I felt I knew Anne Frank so well? So I can see why Josh feels having the twins’ meet a survivor is important: once you can put a name to a face and match someone’s experience to a huge unimaginable event in history, in becomes more real.

But also much more terrifying?

Great post, Mel.

9 Her Royal Fabulousness { 04.19.12 at 6:12 pm }

As a teacher, I worry about this kind of thing a lot. We discuss this (how to teach hard history lessons to kids) specifically around the Civil Rights Movement because I am in a secular school, but this relates.

I grew up Jewish and learned very, very young about the Holocaust. I saw the awful pictures from the camps and went to the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles (because I grew up there). As an adult, I went to the Holocaust Museum in DC as well. All of this made me feel deeply connected to my culture growing up and it is still powerful for me to read about today. I’m reading “The Book Thief” as we speak, btw.

As for the kids, I think you give them information that is developmentally appropriate for their age. I think there are some very tactful children’s books on the topic (Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is one) and there might even be some picture books that might guide parents. I also think you don’t have to lay it all out for kids right away. You can talk in more general terms about cruelty when they are very little and tell a little more each year. Luckily, with technology, many interviews with survivors are available digitally, and will be for years to come. So, I wouldn’t worry about the resource disappearing. In fact, I think it was Spielberg who spearheaded that project for posterity…

Excellent post.

10 loribeth { 04.19.12 at 7:30 pm }

As I was reading through the further comments, I wondered if you’d ever heard of “Hana’s Suitcase”? It started out as a CBC Radio documentary & then became a children’s book (among other things). I think it’s aimed at a slightly older audience than the twins’ age, but it’s really a remarkable story. For future consideration ; ) here are a few links:


11 Justine { 04.19.12 at 9:22 pm }

Love this post, and the comments. I don’t think that children are ever too young, if they are old enough to ask. My son often surprises me with his depth of understanding. If we speak to them with compassion, in words that they can understand, and give them a sense of safety (even in an uncertain world), I think we are doing right by them as parents.

12 Delenn { 04.19.12 at 11:43 pm }

Love reading these comments. We kinda waited for a bit until our son was 8-9 years old. We did not give it to him all at once or spend oodles of time on it at first. When he was 11 years old we watched Schlinder’s List with him.

I wish that I had realized that this was a special day to be able to remember.

Thanks for the stimulating discussion!

13 Sara { 04.19.12 at 11:44 pm }

I have a vivid memory of a conversation about the holocaust that I had with a friend at the beginning of the year when I was in fourth grade, when I was nine. It wasn’t something that we covered in school, but by then, it was something that I just knew about in a lot of detail and assumed that everybody knew about also. It actually only occurred to me reading your post that my friend probably had no idea what I was talking about, which explains why the conversation went the way that it did!

I know a (very precocious) 6-year-old who is learning stories about how Jews have been persecuted throughout history at school. She is integrating it all well, and thinks about it without being traumatized by it. I’m not sure if these stories include the Holocaust yet, but it’s obvious to me that she is to some extent ready for age-appropriate information. Most kids aren’t nearly as mature as this particular child, and obviously you know your children best, but philosophically, I tend to agree with Kristin that no children are too young to learn about important things in life, it’s just a question of making the information age-appropriate.

14 Sushigirl { 04.20.12 at 4:32 am }

I’m not Jewish, but I’d agree that it’s all about finding age appropriate sources and then building on them. The more different places you learn about the Holocaust – and you’re never too old to learn – the more powerful it all is.

For me, one of the most powerful things I’ve done to learn about the Holocaust recently is visit an obscure – to the West, anyway – concentration camp in the former Yugoslavia. Presumably there had never been much money for interpretational materials. Apart from some photos on the ground floor of the commandants and victims (Roma and Serbs as well as Jews), the building was more or less the same as it was at the end of the war, apart from a couple of “fire exit” signs. There was still barbed wire around some of the cell doors, the watch posts hadn’t been fenced off, no modern lights had been fitted, and visitors were free to wander.

Even although there was less information about what went on there than in similar places in Western Europe, it was all very raw. Incidentally, there was a party of schoolchildren entering when we left, I think they looked about 9-10.

I also remember watching the BBC People’s Century programme about the Holocaust when I was about 12. It’s excellent, if probably not suitable for younger children.

15 aj { 04.20.12 at 7:32 am }

great post.

my grandmother was a holocaust survivor, so i don’t remember ever not knowing about it – she probably started talking about it when i started asking questions. why did she and her parents speak german to each other? why didn’t they still live in austria? who were all the people in the family photos that i never met? what happened to them?

it will be different, if i am ever lucky enough to have children. my grandparents and great-grandparents have all passed away; my house and my parents’ house do not have the visual reminders of lives interrupted.

16 Bea { 04.20.12 at 8:43 am }

Well, I never knew and still don’t know of any holocaust survivors in our area who could do a face to face meeting, so to me it’s always been sort of like the crusades. More so as my ancestors were all deployed around the Pacific regions. There were plenty of horrors everywhere at that time, that’s for sure. I’ve visited Europe, including places like Dachau, since, and I’ll echo what others have said – the most important thing is not hearing first hand so much as hearing, it’ll definitely be a more-than-one-session topic, and readiness is probably the most important thing. That said, given that you and others were discussing these things at eight, maybe sooner is more the time than later. Hm. How’s all that for vague? I really don’t know.

Let us know what you decide. I’d be interested to hear.


I don’t know.

17 Gayle { 04.20.12 at 9:51 am }

I think age appropriateness is key. It’s never too early to be building an understanding of where your people came from and what they have been through (regardless of race/ethnicity/religion/whatever). I think this is an important part of how to raise smart, compassionate, thoughtful little humans.
We’re not Jewish, but I am 2nd generation American and raised around immigrants with much emphasis on “remembering the way things were,” both the good and the bad, lest their lessons be lost. I’m in my 30s and would love nothing more than to hear more stories about The Old Country from relatives and friends of the family who have long passed. The versions I heard as a little kid were definitely cleaned up a bit for young ears, but they were built upon as I got older and understood better how harsh the world could be as well as how beautiful.

18 Kate { 04.20.12 at 11:13 am }

I have many thoughts on the subject in particular, and, as a broader ‘teaching history’ topic but I have first-hand experience with survivors. I have met and talked with survivors both in a formal setting and in casual settings and I don’t feel like my understanding of the holocaust is better for it. I met interesting people; one formal meeting one (a talk on the topic specifically) expressed an attitude of strength and grace and being thankful for what you have no matter how big or small. The informal meetings were people I was on a travel tour with so I spend a good amount of time with them and they were very bitter and entitled and more than once blamed their current poor behavior on their past horrific experience. I was about 8 for the formal meeting, and I was 20 for the informal one and fresh out of college. I truly believe that each person was and individual and showing different ends of the spectrum, but, neither actually enhanced my knowledge of the holocaust. My Grandfather was a camp liberator and he could hardly tell us stories. I learned more from Night, Ann Frank, and a few other books chosen for schools, or, historical fiction then from the actual people. I suppose my point is that the survivor part of the teaching was not where I learned so I would not rush the lesson for that.

19 Jendeis { 04.20.12 at 1:54 pm }

I remember the Holocaust Museum having an excellent exhibit done for children – I’d look that up and see if you and Josh think the kids are able to handle it.

I had a lot of Holocaust-related fears growing up and think that those might have been lessened if my parents had been able to speak with me about them.

There are lots of good(and not as good) Holocaust books for kids. I think Kveller has a list of them. I liked When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

20 St. Elsewhere { 04.22.12 at 3:06 am }

Holocaust for me as an event in history was always intriguing, but very painful.

My roots are far removed from that era and that place, but I was intrigued by it from the very beginning. I tended to absorb and read a lot on what happened then, what were the precursors to it, and what happened later. Shows/Movies on Discovery, even fiction based on it, such as by Leon Uris, received a lot of attention from me.

But what always makes me shudder is how could this be done? How could such a crime be perpetrated? Why was such a huge group of people so misguided and full of such inhuman loathing? I am not sure if there are any easy answers to it. I remember watching this movie, where the father hides the son somewhere, and tells him that he is doing a magic trick…and that he must not come out. The father is caught and executed and the boy continues to believe that his father is on with some magic trick.

I would be interested to know what you finally did.

21 Pam { 04.22.12 at 6:30 pm }

I can’t answer your question, but I recall growing up there never being specific conversation, at least not at home. We were taught in religious school probably from grade 3 and I’ve never forgotten the black and white films they showed us taken of the concentration camps when they were liberated. Haunting. I remember being so affected when I went to Europe when I was 25 with a Con.tiki tour and one of our stops was at a concentration camp (in Germany I believe – I don’t remember which) and my tour mates just didn’t understand my reaction. I sat in the bus and cried afterwards. We went to the Anne Frank house as well, although in awe and feeling honoured to have been able to go there, the affect wasn’t the same.

Growing up in one Toronto’s oldest Reform congregations we were privileged to have Rabbi Gun.ther Pla.ut (who recently passed away) as our chief Rabbi. A Holocaust survivor, students as well as the congregation often got first hand accounts during sermons and class assemblies. He often told the story of how he and his wife got married on Kristallnacht. High Holy Days usually brought Elie Wiesel to our temple to give a sermon, although I he may have led one of the services (we were large enough that there were always two or three concurrently).

I don’t think it’s ever too early to start to talk about with children. Perhaps in the same way you spoke about Bin Laden and 911, you could talk about the Holocaust. Maybe relate it to the children who were there.

There are a number of resources on the internet, as I’m sure you’ve found. This one may be good. http://webtech.kennesaw.edu/jcheek3/holocaust.htm I’m sure whatever you decide to do will be the right way for your kids.

22 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 04.25.12 at 10:54 pm }

DH had two parents who were survivors and went to Jewish day school so it was always present. Yet, he never heard a first-hand account of anything from either grandparent — they just did not talk about it. Same for his stepmother’s parents: she was in her 50s before her father told her how many siblings he had lost in “The War.” Which is to say, meeting a survivor and getting an account from a survivor are two very different things.

Burrito and Tamale have met 3 relatives that I can think of who were survivors (DH’s grandparents died 4 and 9 years before B&T were born). Now, only one of those survivors is still alive. I can’t imagine that Burrito and Tamale will ever get an account from her, given that she’s never given details to her own children. Hopefully she will live long enough for them to have other memories of her, and then we can fill in the details on her past as well as those of their other ancestors.

23 Sam { 04.30.12 at 10:14 pm }

I remember learning in 6th grade from a kid who was teasing me about it. I went home and asked my mom who Hitler was and if he really killed the Jews. Ironically, the girl teasing me was a gypsy.

My daughter in third grade came home from school last week asking me about someone named Hitler and if he really put Jews in ovens. I wasn’t ready for that talk. At least the kid in her class who said it wasn’t teasing her.

I would have preferred to give her more years of blissful ignorance.

24 Number One { 12.11.12 at 5:23 pm }

I don’t think that anyone could explain something as
monstrous as the Holocaust to any child under the age of 13 or so.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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