How Do You Teach the Holocaust to Kids Who’ve Never Heard of It?

By the time my third-grade teacher assigned Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars,” I already had a basic understanding of the Holocaust. We sat in a circle to discuss the text as part of a lunchtime book club. My fellow classmates expressed awe at how scary it must have been for the main character to hide in a boat while the Nazis searched the harbor. “Yeah, but she got away,” I said. “My grandma didn’t get to escape. She got sent to the camps.”

A dozen heads swiveled in my direction.

“The camps?”

“All right, Sophie, thank you for sharing,” my teacher said. “For now we are going to stick to this story.”

My grandmother spent decades telling her story in schools near her adopted hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She would not speak to a class if that class had not completed a full unit on the Holocaust, and she generally did not speak to classes below sixth grade. After I started teaching, the first time I heard her speak to my class was in fifth grade, when my gifted program spent several weeks on the subject. My co-teachers introduced the topic by first defining key terms: Jew, Nazi, stereotype, prejudice, hate, anti-Semitism, genocide. To be honest, I don’t remember much of their method after that, just an amalgam of textbook excerpts, blurry pictures and my own oversharing.

Now I wish that I remembered better, as I’m starting a new career as a first-grade teacher at an underserved school, through Teach for America. I recently underwent five weeks of first-year teacher training in Atlanta. While I taught addition and subtraction to a class of rising first-graders, several of my friends were assigned to teach middle school English language arts.

The first day of training, they came back to our dorms, copies of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in hand. A few of them told me they were nervous about teaching it. What if this would be the students’ introduction to the Holocaust? If so, how were they supposed to introduce it? What if the students got scared or uncomfortable? What if the teachers didn’t know how to answer all their questions?

One of my new friends, a Jew like me, had another concern: What if the students weren’t respectful of the topic? This was summer school, after all, full of adolescents who would rather be taking advantage of a summer break. She did have trouble with students when she first introduced the unit, but then she switched tactics.

“I’m Jewish,” she told her class, “and so this is a really important subject for me. I am taking this lesson seriously, and I need you to do so, as well.”

After that, she noticed a shift. Behavior problems decreased, and in addition the students began asking her about Judaism, as they had never met a Jew. This was a scenario I know well, hearing about the Holocaust in a classroom full of non-Jews unfamiliar with Jewish people. (I am from Kansas.) The Holocaust is part of my family’s history, so I learned about it early, in a non-school setting. From my experience, even Jews without Holocaust survivors in the family learned about the topic early, as well, because it is our shared history.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day I heard an NPR story about Israeli Holocaust education in kindergarten. One teacher said that although she has to be very careful about not getting in-depth and scaring students, she does teach the topic. She prepares her students for the nationwide minute of silence, explaining to them what it is for. She explains the Holocaust as a time when there were very bad people who hurt the Jews, even killed a lot of them, but we made it through. It’s easier to learn topics if we can relate them to ourselves, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Israeli kindergarteners were exposed to the Holocaust.

As stated on the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem’s website: “The school consequently develops materials appropriate for all ages, beginning with very young children ….. We believe that people of all ages are able to confront the Holocaust at an appropriate level.” According to Yad Vashem, we teach the Holocaust in order to instill ethical values, and “the inculcation of ethical values must begin at a very young age.” The Holocaust is wrapped up inherently with Jewish identity and with Israeli identity, and because it is such an important part of our people’s history, it is taught early and often.

But that philosophy changes in the United States. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s web page on age appropriateness when teaching about the Holocaust, “students in grades six and above demonstrate the ability to empathize with eyewitness accounts and to attempt to understand the complexities of Holocaust history, including the scope and scale of the events.”

Unlike Yad Vashem, the USHMM does not advocate teaching the Holocaust to elementary-age students, although it mentions that the children’s exhibit, “Daniel’s Story,” is appropriate for fourth-graders and up. It is easier here to shelter young kids from the horrors of the Holocaust because it is not necessarily connected to their own families, themselves and their own identities.

When I lived in New York, I baby-sat for a family that lived on the Upper East Side and was non-Jewish. There were two kids, 11 and 10. Daniel, the 11-year-old, had a penchant for World War II. Once I let it slip that my grandma was in World War II, he wouldn’t let it slide. He asked me, week after week, to tell me her story. Finally, I caved. I remembered how much I hated it when I was little and adults kept information from me, and after all, he went to school in New York — surely he knew something about the Holocaust already, and I assumed that he had a lot of Jewish friends.

I was careful not to mention anything I thought would be too upsetting, and I stuck to the basic facts: dates, places, names. But he had so many questions. Did she ever see anyone get killed? Did any of her relatives get killed? Of course — this was the Holocaust, after all. I left out certain details he could learn later, but I didn’t want to dodge his questions. Yes, some prisoners were killed by poisonous gas that came out of a showerhead. Yes, they burned bodies in ovens sometimes. Yes, there is still a group of people called Nazis, although they don’t have any power anymore.

He kept asking me questions as I put him to bed. My grandma was liberated by the Russians, reunited with her father; it’s time for bed. But what happened next? Living in Germany, taken in by a nice mayor in a town with a beautiful castle. But how did she get to the United States? She met a cute American soldier. who asked her to marry him. How did she get to America? The United States wouldn’t let her in, so she took a boat to Canada and sneaked in. Why hasn’t she been caught? She’s an American citizen now, just like you and me. Where does she live now? Oklahoma. Why? Doesn’t matter. Seriously, time for bed. I sat on the floor of his room while he brushed his teeth. His little sister, Maisie, cartwheeled down the hall, a bedtime ritual that I used to be against until I realized it tired her out. Daniel emerged from his bathroom in pajamas and climbed into bed.

“You all set for lights out?” I asked.

He nodded, and I switched off the light. “’Night, Daniel.”

His parents usually came home around 10 p.m., so I had a full hour and a half to get some homework done. I curled up on the couch and opened my book. I had read only a few pages, when Daniel materialized in the doorway. He was my height and usually looked older than 11 in his school uniform, which included a navy blazer with a big crest and very snappy shoes. But now he looked much younger. His arms and legs were so skinny in his rocket ship pajamas, and his eyes were huge, scared.

“Sophie, I can’t fall asleep.”

Oh, no.

“Why’s that?” I asked, trying to look confused.

He sat next to me on the couch and looked down at his hands. “Do you think the Nazis could, you know, come back?”

Not to this side of the park, I wanted to joke. But I didn’t. “No, Daniel, they won’t come back. You’re safe here, I promise.”

He sighed. “I know. It’s just that I have pictures in my head I can’t get out now.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I shouldn’t have told you those stories.” And I shouldn’t have.

“Can you tell me a funny story so I can fall asleep?”

“Sure.”

I was midway through a story about a kid I had gone to school with who used to pull pranks on our teachers, when the door beeped and Mr. and Mrs. Wyndham walked into the foyer. I had broken the No 1. rule of baby-sitting: The kids should not be up when the parents get home.

“Why, Daniel, what are you doing up?” Mr. Wyndham said.

“It’s my fault,” I blurted. “He couldn’t fall asleep because I kept him up, and he was just getting back to bed.”

Mrs. Wyndham was nicer. “He must have eaten too late a snack,” she said. “Daniel, you know not to do that.” Both parents walked down the hall. “You put Daniel to bed, and I’ll get my wallet for Sophie,” I heard Mrs. Wyndham murmur.

Hands shaking, I gathered my homework and stuffed it into my bag. Usually it took her less than two minutes to go to her bedroom and come back with a wad of 20s, but this time it was taking longer. I pictured Daniel crying into his mother’s elbow, blubbering about how I seared a picture into his brain of Jews getting gassed at Auschwitz. She would never hire me back, and worse, I would have messed up her kid. I hooked my bag onto my shoulder and lingered near the door. Finally, Mrs. Wyndham emerged, cash in hand. “I’m so sorry,” I blurted. “It’s all my fault.”

She waved me away with a lipstick-covered smile. “It’s really fine. Have a good night, and see you next week.”

I arrived at the Wyndhams’ the next week to find Mrs. Wyndham alone in the apartment, no kids.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about before I have you pick up Daniel from his activity,” she said.

A MetroCard was ready on the table, along with a rolled-up $20 bill and a sticky note with an address on it.

“Listen,” I said, “I’m really sorry about the other night. I was the reason Daniel couldn’t fall asleep. I told him a story I probably shouldn’t have.”

She smiled a thin smile. “No, it’s all right. It’s just that Daniel sometimes seems so mature. I forget how young he is sometimes. He has trouble handling, you know, sad things.”

She was very big on eye contact, which made me uncomfortable. I glanced around the bookshelves in the kitchen. I caught one title, “The Rape of Nanking.” At least he hadn’t asked me about that.

“He knows a lot about war,” I said.

She laughed. “He does. I’m sure your grandmother has an incredible story, a sad one, but I don’t think he’s ready quite yet to hear about that.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled again. “I think it’s good that you’re earlier today. He can see you in the light, associate you with the daytime, happy things.”

After Elie Wiesel’s death I heard a quote from his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize speech: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” The USHMM uses these words in one of its statements on why we teach the Holocaust: “Studying the Holocaust also helps students to… explore the dangers of remaining silent, apathetic, and indifferent to the oppression of others.”

I have always found this quote of Wiesel’s powerful, but it wasn’t until a week after his death that his words really stuck in my head. The morning after Philando Castile was murdered, and one day after Alton Sterling’s murder, I drove to New Orleans from Teach for America training in Atlanta. In New Orleans I would attend professional development sessions until the school year began.

Like the Atlanta public school system, New Orleans’s Recovery School District is made up overwhelmingly of students of color. My new first-graders live in some of the roughest neighborhoods in New Orleans. My school is an hour and a half’s drive from Baton Rouge, where Sterling was killed. It was founded in 1955, during Jim Crow, as the legally all-black neighborhood elementary school. Daniel on the Upper East Side had never known firsthand what it was like to face prejudice, to be stereotyped, to experience racism. His parents were able to shelter him from these things — they had the privilege to opt out, to table these lessons for later (or to avoid teaching them forever). My students and their parents do not have this option. They face obstacles and have struggles to which I will never have to, and can’t pretend to, relate.

In teacher training we talked about the importance of knowing our own identity so that we are aware of how we relate to and connect with students authentically. As explained by Yad Vashem, “The student’s encounter with the past and with its ethical dilemmas will be internalized over the years and will contribute to the construction of his or her own identity and personal ethics.” So identity and personal ethics are deeply connected. I cannot relate to the racism and oppression my students face daily, but I can teach them the power of stereotyping, prejudice and hate through my own lens. I need my students to understand that I am their ally and their advocate.

At the end of every talk she gives, my grandmother reminds the audience of the reason that she tells her story: so we can make sure that stories like hers never happen again. And when we see situations of oppression and hate and discrimination arise, we will know that we need to stand up for those being oppressed and stand up to the ones doing the oppressing. Holocaust education is even more important in light of the events that have been occurring throughout our nation’s history but are just now coming, en masse, to light. It is not enough to never forget.

Sophia Marie Unterman is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.

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