Children and the Holocaust: When Do We Talk About It?
Today is Yom HaShoah -- Holocaust Remembrance Day. It's on our calendar, though I totally forgot about it; 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. They're young. But there's a reason for doing it now instead of five years from now: to introduce them to a survivor, before all of the survivors are gone. We could wait five years to tell them about the Holocaust, but anyone with strong memories of that time is already in their 70s or 80s by now.
My knee-jerk reaction was no. I told Josh 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 about 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 me 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 a copy. So Josh sent his copy 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 was taught to us both 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 in third grade, I 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 it was never an event I learned about in one day; I never 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 for my generation, the topic of the Holocaust came up 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 history event as much as just a fairly recent event, like September 11. People still wanted to talk about it. 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 -- I am in 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 firsthand, the book Night, by Elie Wiesel, helped give me an emotional tie to the Holocaust. My family was from the same town of Sighet; when I read that book, my family members were in the background, the other townspeople. My great aunt has pictures of those family members. That book and those pictures were going to be my way of teaching the next generation to never forget. I counted on them being the experience that will change the way they view the Holocaust -- not as something that happened to someone else, but as something that happened in this world. Something that will show them that we are all accountable for the events that occur in this world, all affected by both the terribleness and wonderfulness of humans. 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 (though if I didn't, Kveller wrote a great guide), but the question is more in the vein of should. Do I push the knowledge now in order to give them that first-hand experience, the chance to speak to a survivor, knowing full well that I was able to hear that information when I was their age? Or do I 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.