Are children too young to visit concentration camps?

July 6, 2014

Question: (Question)

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Your question really resonates with me because as a parent I have had to reflect on the same issue. On the one hand, Holocaust education can be overdone to the detriment of the young people one is trying to educate. Excessive focus on the horrors of the Holocaust can leave young Jews with a skewed view of what it means to be Jewish.

While not explicitly stated, the implicit message in Holocaust-centric education is that young Jews must commit themselves to Jewish life so as not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. Although for some this guilt-laden tactic might bear fruit, leading to greater Jewish observance and identification, for many it has the opposite effect.

Many young Jews today react negatively to what can only be described as Holocaust saturation. There is something intrinsically disturbing about a Judaism that is driven and sustained in large measure by the ghosts of Hitler and his henchmen. Young Jews want a Judaism that is joyful and celebratory, not one shot through with misery, tragedy and guilt.

However, we cannot simply pretend that the Holocaust never happened. The Shoah was a tragedy of colossal dimensions which stands out in Jewish history, and indeed in world history, for its sheer evil and ferocity. At the very least, we owe it to the martyrs of the Holocaust to preserve their memories as best we can and to honour their sacrifice.

One way in which to do this is by visiting a concentration camp to learn about the tragedy as well as to reflect and pray at the very place they lost their lives. There is an additional element that adds urgency to such trips when they are led or accompanied by actual survivors, whose numbers dwindle year by year.

So all things considered, I think a secondary school trip to a concentration camp can be a very important Jewish and educational experience provided it is properly framed theologically and that the students are psychologically prepared. As a concerned parent, you should satisfy yourself that this indeed the case by talking it through with your son's teachers.

Ultimately, you know your child best. So if you feel that he is not mature enough to appreciate from such a trip at this stage, you can always arrange for him to go when he is a little older.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

First, the age question: by secondary school, your son will know about death, both natural and unnatural, whether it be from squirrels squashed in the road, pets that have died, family members that have been lost and pictures of war victims in the news.

I understand totally that you wish to protect your child from the full horrors of the world, but I suspect he is already aware of how painful and unjust it can be. Moreover, learning about the Holocaust within the environment of a school trip can be very supportive.

However, you may wish to check with the school what message it intends to derive from the visit: if it is remembering the past, seeing the results of prejudice and learning lessons about tolerance, then that is worthwhile and can have a beneficial effect. But if it is about "what the goyim do to us", seeing every non-Jew as a potential antisemite and building barriers between Jews and the rest of society, that is unacceptable and counterproductive.

The second aspect is whether - given the limited time for school trips -visiting concentration camps should be the priority. Surely the key object should be to build up a sense of pride in being Jewish and appreciating Jewish values, not immersing oneself in destruction and victimhood.

Writing as the child of a Holocaust refugee, I am only too aware of its impact, but I am not certain it should be used as a key marker in Jewish identity. The growth in Holocaust monuments and museums and books - each one worthy in itself - is adding up to an astonishingly large Holocaust industry.

Of course, it should be studied and remembered, but maybe school visits should be to places of Jewish wonder and vibrancy. In London, why not go to Bevis Marks and see a synagogue of superbly choreographed architecture and which reflects so much of the history of British Jewry? For a European trip, why not visit Rashi's Troyes, Maimonides's Cordova, the Jewish quarter of Prague or the triple-tiered synagogue in Budapest? Meanwhile, include the Holocaust by going to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam which combines it with themes of daring and hope for the future.

Jewish history certainly contains its vale of tears, but why not focus instead on the mountains of positivity? And if the school will not take your son to those places, then you should.

Last updated: 10:45am, July 6 2014