In War Time, Talking to Kids About the Shoah

By Aliza Phillips

Published April 25, 2003, issue of April 25, 2003.
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In a meeting to discuss this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations, the staff psychologist of the Rashi School in Newton, Mass., told the Reform day school’s teachers to “remember that we are in a different world,” according to Shlomit Lipton, Rashi’s interim head.

Talking to children about the Holocaust is never easy. But it may be even more difficult to teach about the Holocaust at a time when children watch the war in Iraq on television, exposed to countless images of violence. Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, has become a regular part of the school calendar at Jewish schools, marked by special programs and curricula. As educators and psychologists at these institutions prepare to commemorate the holiday on Tuesday, they are keeping this year’s unique circumstances in mind.

Lipton said that having spent time discussing the war in Iraq with their classes, the teachers are aware that some children may be particularly sensitive. She said that for children in grades 3 through 5 — the school does not teach its younger students about the Holocaust — the focus is on stories that focus on the triumph of the human spirit such as Anne Frank or the children of Theresienstadt, whose artwork and poetry are featured in the book “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”

She said that the school teaches its students how they might apply those lessons of courage to their own lives in times of war. “This is what we do during our hard time,” Lipton said they teach. “We are afraid bad things will happen around us. Where do we find that strength? Do we get that belief in God? The strength of the human spirit, the strength that family gives us allows us to do good things.”

According to Eva Fogelman, a Manhattan psychologist specializing in Holocaust-related traumas, when talking with children about the Holocaust, it’s important to keep age-appropriate responses in mind. “It’s always a good idea to take cues from the children themselves, what questions they’re asking. It’s the same with any subject, but particularly when it comes to information that could have a psychological impact on the well-being of children,” she said. “You do not want to overwhelm children with information that could make them feel very vulnerable as Jews.” She added, “preteen children want a happy ending.”

Indeed, said a counselor at the Portland Jewish Academy in Oregon, Genevieve Browning, children want to be supported. They want to know that “life’s going on and we’re still going to go to Brownie meetings and that our parents are going to protect us.” The questions are different for older children, said Browning, who sent a letter on talking about the war to the parents of the children in the community day school.

Browning said that in studying about the Holocaust this year, students are likely to express concern for Israel’s safety. She said that older students might find parallels between Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. “I’ve had some kids understand that,” Browning said.

Many Orthodox schools, which foster particularly close identification with Israel among students, mark another holiday — Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Soldiers Memorial Day, which falls a week after Holocaust Remembrance Day. For children at the Ramaz Middle School, an Orthodox institution in Manhattan, this commemoration of fallen soldiers might evoke more anxiety than Yom Hashoah, said Judy Sokolow, the school’s senior coordinator of student educational programming. Because of both the suicide bombing attacks in Israel and the war in Iraq, students are increasingly aware of the value and mortality of soldiers. Every year for the Memorial Day commemoration, the school holds an assembly and the students sing some old-time Israeli soldering songs. This year for the first time, students are singing in English as well, in honor of the American soldiers at war. “Yom Hazikaron is a more sensitive issue,” Sokolow said. “Kids are not afraid of a Yom Hashoah-like situation happening in the United States.”

Historical context is essential in helping children to understand the Holocaust, said the coordinator of the Mandel Teacher Fellowship Program at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Daniel Napolitano. “What kids will take away from this in application to current events is a real challenge for parents,” he said. “Kids today, their questions about war are going to be real. They’re not going to be able to separate 50 years ago in history from today.”

Napolitano warned that “the nature of the Holocaust is so complex that children have to be at a certain developmental level to deal with it.” Thus his programs are catered to children at the seventh-grade level and up and delve into questions of international relations and European colonialism, an understanding of which he said can illuminate our understanding of today’s world events.

He also advocates a history lesson for parents who, he said, sometimes “don’t like to talk to a kid because they are afraid the children might ask a hard question.

Then again, children might ask nothing at all. Sokolow said that Ramaz students meet regularly in advisory groups to talk about what is on their minds, current events included. “We’ve been dealing with these issues since September 11 when they arise,” she said. “The truth is, sometimes kids want to talk and sometimes they’ve had enough.”

For suggestions on how to talk to children about the Holocaust, please visit

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