Ask Miriam | How Do You Teach a Child About the Holocaust?

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Jews wearing Star of David badges, Lodz Ghetto, Poland, 1940-1944.
(Photo by Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Dear Miriam,

My almost super savvy history-loving 7-year-old boy knows a whole lot about the oppression of other groups of people. We talk a lot about racism, sexism and white privilege. He understands that people have been prejudiced against Jews before, too. But I’ve never told him about the Holocaust. I’ve been hoping religious school would do this for me, but it is starting to feel odd that I am so comfortable teaching him about police brutality but can’t discuss the Holocaust with him. When and how do most people teach their Jewish kids about it?    

Signed,


Historical Gap

Dear Gap,

I received this question several weeks ago and thought, “I’ll wait until after Chanukah and all my fun holiday-related posts before I answer this difficult question.” Sadly, on this last day of Chanukah, I know I am not alone in focusing on the rise in anti-Semitic violence, especially, but not only, in New York’s Orthodox communities.

Much has been written about these incidents and the ways in which the lessons of Chanukah can be reflected through our current lens of hatred and fear. But what do we tell our children? And how, and when, do we distinguish between sharing information about specific, current acts of anti-Semitism, and the historical legacy of things like blood libels, pogroms and, yes, the Holocaust?

It sounds like you’ve done a wonderful, though difficult, job as a parent teaching your son about oppression. While the Holocaust likely feels more personal, you’ve set the groundwork both for difficult conversations in general and conversations about hatred and violence in particular.

I asked several Jewish parents and educators for guidance in answering your question, and the overwhelming takeaway was that Holocaust education happens in layers over time. Seven is old enough to understand some generalities about the Holocaust, and starting the process now will avoid one terrible conversation in the future about all the things you’ve never told him.

If any members of your family, or close members of your community, fled Europe, you have an obvious entry point while talking about how these loved ones got to America. Phrases like, “It wasn’t safe to be Jewish where they lived,” or, “A group of people called Nazis didn’t think Jews should have any rights,” will make some sense to a kid who is used to talking about justice and oppression.

There is an enormous body of children’s literature about the Holocaust, and focusing on age-appropriate stories about individuals displaying bravery and helping others will give your son a grounding before he ever learns about concentration camps. Your local children’s librarian, or, you know, the internet, should be able to give you lots of book recommendations. Preview any books before you share them with your son so that you can prepare yourself and decide if these are the right resources.

If your child is in public school, I absolutely recommend he learns the basics of the Holocaust from you before hearing about it in a non-Jewish context at school. You may want to learn more about the timing in the school curriculum to help guide you. You could also reach out to his religious school to find out when the Holocaust is discussed there, which could help you decide on your timing at home.

Your son is old enough that, if he asks you questions, you should answer as honestly as feels age appropriate. After you’ve set some groundwork through books or family stories, be prepared for follow-up questions, though you don’t need to supply extra information beyond what feels appropriate. Teaching your son about his own history throughout his life will equip him to better understand the other lessons you’ve taught him about justice and oppression and to better understand his own Jewish identity.

As this Chanukah comes to a close, I speak for all Jewish parents when I say that no one wants to have these conversations with our kids. We wish we lived in a world where all Jews, and all people, were safe to be who they are without fear. So, so sadly, we know this is not the way things are, and our job as parents is to introduce the concepts our children need to know in the gentlest, most age-appropriate ways possible, and to be available as a safe recipient for our children’s questions.

Be well,

Miriam

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