Tomorrow, March 19th, is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s never easy to talk about the Holocaust with your kids, but here is one mother’s attempt:
The five of us were walking to temple for the Purim megillah reading last month, when my husband made an off-handed reference to two out of three Jews in Europe being “gone.”
“Gone?” my 8-year-old, who has a gift for not hearing commands to clean his room when you are standing right in front of him, but suddenly develops bat-ears when you are looking away and not talking to him at all, wanted to know. “Where did they go?”
My husband and I exchanged looks, wondering what to say, when my 5-year-old daughter piped up, “Was it Pittsburgh?” (My brother moved to Pittsburgh a year ago.)
“Yes,” my husband said slowly. “Two out of three Jews of Europe moved to Pittsburgh.”
We promptly changed the subject. By that point, the kids had moved onto thinking about groggers and hamantashen, anyway. But, my husband and I realized that maybe it was finally time to have The Talk.
Not The Birds and Bees Talk. At our house, all three kids hear more than enough about human biology, and in such boring, scientific terms, too! No, at our house, the Talk is The Holocaust Talk. Soon to be followed by The Slavery and Jim Crow Talk, and then the Life Under Stalin (Especially for Jews) Talk.
The thing is though, the Holocaust (and slavery and Stalin…), they’re not exactly topics you can casually drop into conversation, i.e. “I’ll pick you up from school at 3, we’ll go to ballet class and six million Jews were killed during World War II.”
You can’t just dump it on a kid. You have to prepare them and find the right moment and ease into the subject gently and not overwhelm them with information that’s beyond their comprehension developmentally, even if they can understand every word you say.
Or you could just go see a musical about it. (Though, no, I would not advise “The Producers.”)
Amidst my latest parenting conundrum, I got a chance to see “The Butterfly” at the Mint Theater in Manhattan (it’s playing through April 29, in case anyone else would like to see it, too). I took my 12 and 8-year-olds, figuring the subject matter would be too intense for the 5-year-old.
Instead, it proved too intense for me. The story concerns a French Catholic girl who helps her mother hide a Jewish girl and her father in their basement, then facilitates their escape to Switzerland. Along the way, she witnesses her Hitler’s Youth neighbor torment the local, Jewish candy-shop owner, along with a rather overly metaphorical butterfly.
My kids were fine with the show and throughout the show. I asked them afterwards if they had any questions.
Did they want to talk about anything?
Were they scared? Traumatized? Confused?
Were they even paying attention?
I think so. I hope so. We got the picture book by Patricia Polacco that the musical was based on, and my 8 year old read it before curtain. He read it on the subway coming home. He read it to his little sister once he got home. And he asked me to read it to both of them before bedtime.
I have to think–hope–that he’s processing it in his own way, and that I shouldn’t rush it. (I also have to admit, I was relieved that he read it to his sister without asking my permission. If he’d asked, I probably would have said no. But, what’s done is done, and now I’ve gotten three birds with one story….)
I’m still processing, too. There were two scenes in particular that got to me. One has the little Jewish girl sneaking out of her hiding place to pet the French girl’s cat, even after she has been warned that it could put everyone in great danger. And the second one was after the French girl, having been finally told by her mother that they’re a safe house for the Resistance and that the child must watch everything she says and does lest suspicion fall on them, deliberately ignores a command by the Hitler Youth to stay away from the Jewish candy store, and drops by anyway.
Remember my Passover-cleaning meltdown wherein my kids’ inability to neaten up their room put me into a panic about how they’d fare when the Cossacks came? Well, let’s just say this play didn’t help that particular neuroses.
It was my husband who talked me down. He said, “You know why we make the kids clean their rooms, and load the dishwasher, and scrub the bathroom, and sort the laundry? It’s so they learn to listen closely, and follow instructions. So when the Cossacks come, or the Nazis, or the Klan, or the KGB, and we tell the kids to shut up, get down, hide, and stay away from the damn cat, they will stay away from the damn cat.”
Oh. (I thought it was because I like having a tidy house.) But, I like my husband’s take on the matter even better. (I did already mention he’s the greatest man ever, right?)
Holocaust Remembrance Day is tomorrow: Thursday, April 19. The saying goes, “Never again.” But, I do wonder how many of us, deep down, completely believe it? And how many of us prefer to be prepared, just in case?
To be honest, I’m not certain how much my kids really got out of seeing “The Butterfly.” When I spoke to the writer, Barbara Zinn Krieger, she said she hoped the show would be the start of a dialogue between parents and children about all sorts of difficult topics. I tried to have a dialogue. I really did. My kids didn’t exactly oblige me.
Then again, you never know how much of what you say about anything sinks into a kid’s brain. Or what they’ll make of the information, or what they’ll do with it.
This was our first conversation. It kind of turned out to be a non-event. I’m going to do my best to make sure it won’t be our last. For now, though, I think I’ll merely set my sights on not waiting until Yom HaShoah 2013 to initiate the next one.
For a rabbi’s perspective on the subject, check out How to Talk to Your Kids About the Holocaust.