Done carefully, Holocaust education should start in kindergarten and continue with progressively deeper layers into adulthood.
The basis of this age-layered Holocaust education is twofold: we must prepare our students for the full story, but we need not tell the whole story at every age. Preparing our students means telling age-appropriate, true yet balanced stories. In this way, we build a layered foundation upon which students can grow into the full story.
Over the past few weeks, we have been discussing critical mistakes we often make in teaching the Holocaust. We discussed the mistake of teaching through tears and the mistake of teaching through role play. We now come to the third mistake: Waiting until too late before starting a discussion of the Holocaust.
Mistake #3: Starting Too Late.
Most of us would agree that there are some Holocaust stories that should not be shared with the very young. For example, it is not appropriate to tell second graders about that time when their great-grandparents were rounded up and shot for being Jews. On the other hand, if we wait until middle or high school to even mention the Holocaust, then our students will get stuck in the basic facts of the Holocaust and never get the chance to grapple with the complexities of our history.
I had a typical religious school experience for people my age: I learned about the Holocaust in 7th grade from two survivors who had been my 5th and 6th grade Hebrew teachers. This was the first and last time we discussed the Holocaust in my religious school. We heard horrific stories about what happened to them and spent no time discussing the deeper questions. Several years later, as a teenager, I had a crisis of faith, convinced that I could not believe in a G-d who could let the Holocaust happen. It was not until much later, listening to other survivors, that I was able to understand how their faith had helped them survive.
The Holocaust raises questions about every aspect of life – our culture, the efficacy of democracy, even the nature of G-d. Students need the chance to work through these questions with teachers and peers who can offer additional knowledge and perspective. If they only begin to learn about the Holocaust in middle or high school, then they have to spend their time just trying to comprehend the basic question of “Wait, what happened?” They never have time to discuss the deep questions such as “How could this happen?” and “Where was G-d?”
What should we do instead?
Deeper understanding of the Holocaust is built from a solid and layered foundation. Concepts are introduced a few at a time and in age-appropriate ways, allowing students to assimilate difficult ideas slowly. Each year another layer of information is added, increasing the depth of understanding. In this way, when they get to middle school, they are ready to start discussing the more difficult aspects of the story.
The building of a layered foundation is accomplished with survivor stories. Using stories of survivors in elementary school is a safety net that ensures the students are not traumatized by the lesson. Knowing the child in the story survived these experiences and grew up, the students never fear for their hero. We will talk more about safety nets next week.
These stories are carefully chosen to be age appropriate and to tell a balanced story from a perspective of hope, survival, and the continuity of Jewish life. It is essential that lesson plans be attuned to what the students can handle at each age. At the youngest ages, the stories focus on ghettos, children in hiding, and the loss of home or freedoms. Concentration camps are saved for middle school and mass murder for high school.
By giving the students a solid foundation of knowledge, the more difficult aspects come as less of a shock. When they reach high school and begin to understand the true depth of the story, they are ready to consider the difficult questions. They will be able to put their questions in context to how survivors dealt with the very same questions.
In the Teach the Shoah curriculum, we start teaching the Holocaust in kindergarten. We introduce the students to a little Jewish boy who lived in Czechoslovakia a long time ago. Tommy’s story actually has very little related to the Holocaust – it’s mostly standard little kid stuff. Amidst the pictures of cows and toy trains and flowers in the marketplace, we learn that Tommy had to move to the ghetto with his parents. We talk about the fact that life was a little harder in the ghetto. The linchpin of the story is Tommy’s birthday cake: his parents couldn’t get the ingredients to make Tommy a cake for his 3rd birthday, so his artist father drew him one instead. Although this seems incredibly poignant and sad to grownups, the kindergartners love it.
In each grade, we introduce a few more concepts, a little more depth. Our third-grade teacher described teaching the story of survivor Hanna Gofrit in this way: “We talked about our Jewish identity, bullying, judging people, hatred, kindness, bravery, and self-worth. We talked about how Hanna might have felt. They learned, they experienced, and they grew.”
The full detail of the Holocaust needs to wait until the students are ready to handle it. However, students need to be prepared for this full story with a layered foundation of age-appropriate understandings of aspects of the Holocaust. When we teach the Holocaust as a balanced story slowly over time, the students ask “How could this happen?” and “What can we do to prevent this from happening again?” rather than “Why do I have to learn this?”
You can find out more about teaching the Holocaust from in a non-traumatic way starting in elementary school at www.TeachTheShoah.org.
Next week: Safety Nets for making Holocaust education age-appropriate for children.