A good friend of mine recently asked me when she should tell her son about the Holocaust. She is not Jewish, she homeschools her son, and he is 11 years old. She was asking me because she knows I grew up with a strong consciousness of the Holocaust (and family members who died during the Holocaust) and as a homeschooler, she wanted to present as accurately as possible the historical relevance and significance of the Holocaust in a way that a school might not.
I had to think back to when I learned about the Holocaust. I can’t remember a time I didn’t know about it, in all honesty. From the time I was very young, maybe 6 or 7 years old, I knew that my mom’s mom (my beloved bubbie Sura Perl z”l) had lost her parents and half of her dozen or so siblings during the War. I knew she was orphaned on the shores of Ellis Island and had to grow up with her siblings and my grandfather as her only life guides.
I knew there were unspeakable horrors that happened to my family, and to the Jewish people. I knew because my grandmother literally couldn’t speak about it. She would try to answer my questions about her mother, her father, her siblings, and her face would crumble and she’d reach for one of the dozens of tissues she had stowed on her person–in a sleeve, in her bra; she always had tissues on hand because she cried a lot. Because of the Holocaust.
I remember learning about Hannah Senesh in middle school at my synagogue. Her bravery, and “The Last Butterfly” poem, and the “I Believe in God” poem found scrawled on walls of the ghettos. And the name “Hitler” was always floating in the air, floating like the ashes of my family and those of all of the millions of families that were set in the clouds above Eastern Europe. Hitler was the worst man who ever lived; that’s how I understood it.
Now I have my own sons. They are 4 and 7. Here’s my take on teaching about the Holocaust: in an age appropriate way, I want them to know about the Holocaust like I did; as soon as possible, and as honestly as possible. It’s a huge part of our history as a people, and as a family. I also want them to know the Tanakh (Jewish bible) backwards and forwards, and to know Maimonides from Rashi, and to know the 39 melakhot of Shabbat (categories of work prohibited on Shabbat) and which melakhot we can do on yontifs (holidays). I want the Holocaust to be part of their Jewish identity because it is. Details about death camps and humans turned into ashes will wait for likely Bar Mitzvah age, but I will be laying the foundations in the next years as the notions of slave labor and discrimination get introduced.
My older son first heard about Hitler from a folk musician I love named Dan Bern (who besides being an awesome musician and songwriter who sounds like a young Bob Dylan, is known for having dated Ani DiFranco) and his band The International Jewish Banking Conspiracy (in case a Holocaust ever happened again, Mr. Bern(stein) says, he named his band that so that his parents would think that rumors of an international Jewish banking conspiracy were all about his band). Bern writes a lot about history, and he does a version of Woody Guthrie’s “The Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done” where he mentions that the biggest thing we could ever do is to kick Hitler in the pants and “damn his soul to hell.” Seriously. That’s what the song says.
When my son asked who Hitler was, I told him he was the worst person who ever lived and that he did really horrible things and that’s why Dan Bern wants to kick him in the pants and damn his soul. I also said that we don’t kick people in the pants or use those words. For the record, my son has never kicked anyone in the pants or cursed or used the word “damn” or “hell” simply because he heard this song; I made it very clear we do not use these words, except to describe Hitler. Hitler was a very special case. And I felt that if my son was going to learn that there was a man who was the worst person in the world and that he was so bad that he deserved to be kicked in the pants and damn his soul to hell, Hitler deserved that from my kid. That was a few years ago.
Nowadays, I speak in larger brushstrokes to the 7-year-old, and my 4-year-old is still just starting to talk and verbalize and we are not ready to discuss Hitler, since he’s more interested in where mama’s penis is (I don’t have one), why the sun is sunny (thank goodness for listening in college), and how old people are when they die (“Ask your father,” I say).
I tell my older son that when my grandparents were kids, a man named Hitler and a bunch of other people thought Jews were not owed equal rights. And they made our lives really hard. And it was horrible and sad, and it made the world go to war over it. And that America was where my family ran to so they could be free to be Jewish. And that now we have Israel. And we are safe. But not everyone in the world is.
We talk about how African-American people didn’t used to be able to drink from the same drinking fountains as whites, and how they didn’t have equal rights. And how that’s wrong, and how my parents–his bubbie and zaidy–marched and had sit-ins to allow African-American students into New York city’s public schools, and how his little brother’s middle name is Heschel for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s about the Holocaust and it’s not. It’s about teaching that the world has horrible people in it, and that people make choices, and that there are those among us who have stood up and will continue to stand up to survive and to thrive and to learn that when we are oppressed, it is a sign to help others who are oppressed.
And we should never oppress a stranger, because we were strangers in a land that was not our own. Get it? Passover just reminded us to take the message of our slavery to others, and to free everyone from what binds them.
May it be so; for us, for our children, and God forbid and God willing, for our children’s children.
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