"I'm Fighting The Nazis, Mom" -- Talking to Kids About The Holocaust
After watching Indiana Jones multiple times last summer, I found Jake, my 7-year-old son, in his room one day with a belt tied diagonally across his shoulder, wrapping around his waist. A hat on his head and a rope in his hand.
"What're you doing buddy?" I asked.
"Playing Indiana Jones," he said.
"Oh, yeah?" I laughed at his ingenuity. Jake was never a big costume kind of kid, so I was surprised to see him in this self-made get up. Proud of his creativity.
"I'm fighting the Nazis," he said.
Could I have been more proud?
Around bedtime, I sat next to him and we talked. Jake isn't much of a talker. But he opens up most in the car and in bed. I asked him if he knew who the Nazis were and he said, "Yes, the bad guys."
This is the moment when parenting gives you that awful apple in your throat. There was an I must tell my child the truthmoment, even though I hate, hate, hated to break the news to him about it. This isn't what I want him to know about the world, no. Is talking to your child about the Holocaust too much for a 7-year-old you might ask? No, I don't think so. We're Jewish and my aunt did perish in the Holocaust in Poland. So this is a historical element of my son's family. It's also the truth about being a Jewish person -- that 8 million Jews died in the Holocaust. This is never a number we will escape. Lastly, Jake has already experienced death. His grandmother died, his great-grandmother died and our cat died. We talk about death in our family and we speak about the circle of life. Death is not a new thing in my house -- in fact, every time we pass a cemetery my 2-year-old daughter wants to know "why all the people died." (They were very old, I tell her.)
But the truth is he was engaged about the actual topic. I'm fighting the Nazis, Mom!
"In the 1940s, a long time ago, there was a man named Adolf Hitler, he was the leader of the Nazis. He didn't like Jewish people. That means he didn't like us."
"A lot of reasons. But mostly because he was a bad guy," I said. "He killed a lot of Jewish people. It was called the Holocaust."
"Yes," I said. "Your great aunt was killed as well. And then the Americans and the Russians stopped Hitler and the Nazis." I paused and let him digest the info. "But I want you to know something. It will never, ever happen again. It's never going to happen to us or anyone you know."
He listened, and we talked about Anne Frank, who he had heard about in school. We even talked a little bit about other bad guys like Voldemort and yes, Darth Vader, because in my house, everything comes back to Star Wars. Grouping real bad guys like Hitler with fake bad guys, I believe, allowed Jake to put it into perspective. "Indy is like Luke Skywalker, right? Indy fights the Nazis and Luke fights the Dark Side." This Jake understood.
I let the conversation peter out because why push such a heavy conversation? Jake and I have talked about it once or twice since. Mostly we spoke about Anne Frank's bravery. This fascinates my son that a girl hid from the Nazis successfully... at least for a period of time. I told him about her house, the time I visited it with my grandmother. How tiny the staircase was. The attic where she lived.
In an article about talking to kids about the Holocaust on her blog Googling the Holocaust, writer Julie Rosenberg (a little disclosure, Jules and I have known each other since nursery school) says it's important to talk about individuals and to treat it as an on-going dialogue.
Julie is writing a book about her mother-in-law, Hana, who was a baby in Auschwitz and was remarkably saved by an American soldier. Get ready for this part of the story. About ten years ago, Hana found the American soldier who saved her on the internet. They reunited in person and he told her to call him "Dad."
Jerusalem, 1991. I'm 21. With my father. We walk into Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. The walls covered with faces of young men staring out into the wilderness of their lives. Swastikas and Jewish hate signs. The room swirls. The light dims. "Dad," I say, "I'm going to fall." He tells me to step outside and get some air. A few minutes pass. My easy life as an abroad student at Tel Aviv University. Smoking hookas with my friends and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. How was I born such a lucky life? Dad walks outside and puts his hand on my shoulder. "You have to go back in," he tells me. I shake my head. "Hayley," he says, "you have to go back in until it burns into your memory." And so I do. And it did. Never forget.
Photo Credit: 1989 Paramount Pictures via Yahoo Movies.