'Mummy, what was the Holocaust?'

Dealing with a child's questions about the Shoah demands sensitivity and patience.


By Lianne Kolirin, July 21, 2011
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Holocaust education which is too shocking and frightening could damage your child’s Jewish identity

Holocaust education which is too shocking and frightening could damage your child’s Jewish identity

Every parent dreads the birds and the bees chat. I hardly relish the prospect, but for me, the thought of another conversation is far more daunting.

My seven-year-old is a voracious reader who devours books on a daily basis. Besides his love of stories, he has an insatiable appetite for non-fiction. Thanks to Horrible Histories, Benji knows about the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians in gruesome detail. As a history graduate I am delighted, but his journeys into the past make me nervous.

What happens when his curiosity lands on an era so horrible that the humorous books would not dare touch upon it? How do I reply when he asks: "Mummy, what was the Holocaust?"

As a pupil at a Jewish primary school, Benji learns about our festivals, traditions, songs and food. His Jewish identity is strong and positive. For him, being Jewish is an enjoyable experience you share with family and friends.

He is ignorant of the uglier side of his heritage: antisemitism, Hitler and the Final Solution. For now, that temporary ignorance is bliss; neither my husband nor I are in any rush to burst the bubble.

But every day, the conversation looms closer. With children as young as 10 now touching on the Holocaust at school, I could leave it to his teachers, though as a Jewish parent I feel a responsibility to participate in this education.

You should take them to the gates of Auschwitz and no further

How do you tell your child about the systematic genocide of their people, without instilling fear and horror? How do you set the tone and where do you draw the line?

Judith Vandervelde, an educator at London's Jewish Museum, runs a seminar entitled, "How do we talk to our children about the Holocaust?"

She says: "The philosophy behind teaching young children about the
Holocaust is that you take them up to the gates of Auschwitz and no further.

"Holocaust education is no longer about sitting them down for that difficult conversation. There are a lot of children's books that touch upon it and children hear about it from a younger age.

"Bad Holocaust education, that is shocking and frightening, damages the child's Jewish identity, their sense of the world and how they perceive others."

She advises parents to be prepared and only go as far as they feel their child can cope with, ideally by years five or six.

"Like sex education, Holocaust education has to be supported at home. It depends on the child's maturity, their family background and their experiences of death.

"Be led by them and answer questions as simply as possible. If they want more, they will ask."

The museum runs workshops for schoolchildren in year six - both Jewish and non-Jewish. The focus is on stories of bravery and rescue - children often meet Kindertransport refugees.

Vandervelde says: "Their stories make the children feel very positive about being British and remind them they live in a safe country."

That was certainly true for Natalie Mayer's son, Samuel. She first raised the issue when he was six. The conversation was triggered by the death of her father-in-law John, who arrived on the Kindertransport from Berlin in 1939.

She says: "I told him Grandpa had to leave Germany because he was Jewish and they didn't like Jewish people there in those days. I explained that he came on a boat with lots of other Jewish children.

"I tried to make Samuel imagine what that felt like and how brave Grandpa was.

"I kept it quite vague and he didn't seem too bothered about why he had to leave. He was more interested in how he arrived here and was very proud of his Grandpa."

The Jewish Museum uses the story of one man - Leon Greenman - to teach schoolchildren about the Holocaust. This British-born Auschwitz survivor was related to my husband.

"It's best to focus on the stories of individuals, particularly if your family was affected," says Ms Vandervelde.

That is exactly what artist Mandy Wheatley did when she initiated the conversation with her 10-year-old, Harry.

She says: "I told him my grandma's parents came here from Poland before the war, but that they left behind brothers and sisters.

"One of their son's - my grandma's first cousin Dov - witnessed his father being shot dead in the street.

"I told Harry that Dov was sent to a prison camp, then skipped to the end of the story. I said lots of people died there, but he was rescued and went to live in Israel."

She explained that although Dov did well for himself, he never "stopped missing his parents and brothers" and that "we must remember them too, so it never happens again".

Mrs Wheatley has painted a series of portraits of children in the Warsaw Ghetto. She used the images to talk to Harry.

"I told him they were children in the ghetto who I'd picked out of photographs. It was my way of keeping their memory alive."

By having this conversation with our kids, we too can keep the memory alive, says family psychotherapist Miriam Chachamu, who runs a seminar called: "How to Answer Your Child's Difficult Questions".

"As parents we want to protect our kids. We don't want them to feel vulnerable as Jews or see themselves as victims.

"However, you don't want them to be ignorant. The Holocaust is part of their history and they need to know it happened.

"They might ask: 'Did this happen to my family? Can it happen here?' Provide the information, but also reassure them and explain what we are doing to prevent it ever happening again."

Treat this not as a one-off conversation, she says, but as an ongoing dialogue.

She adds: "The Holocaust means something different to everyone. The lesson you teach from it might be about strength, tolerance or anti-racism. See this as an opportunity to instil your child with your values."

Experts such as Grant Rogers, the Imperial War Museum's informal learning manager and a fellow of Yad Vashem, suggest that books and museums help introduce children to this dark era of history.

He says: "We have a permanent Holocaust exhibition. It is aimed at over-14s, but that's just a recommendation. We also run a session for families who want to study the Holocaust. We don't aim to give a complete overview, but try to show parents how to lead by example when discussing it with young people."

Open to all ages, the Jewish Museum's exhibit sits alongside stories about modern, living Judaism, highlighting the fact that Hitler failed in his plan.

Vandervelde says: "Parents are assured that though difficult issues are raised, there are no harrowing pictures. We stand by the dignity of those who perished."

And with these words, she invites me to visit with Benji. I still feel he is slightly too young, though I now feel reassured about passing on this important legacy. When the time is right I will take her up on the offer, so as to introduce Benji to his past through the experience of his distant cousin, Leon Greenman.

Last updated: 3:25pm, July 21 2011