The Holocaust has become a big topic of conversation in our house over the past few weeks. I was expecting this moment, dreading it really, wondering when my son would discover the subject and how. What book would tip him off? What radio segment would I fail to turn off in time? What conversation would he overhear? It turns out that it came in the innocuous form of a Magic Tree House book, Super Edition #1 to be precise (we’ve read them all), “Danger in the Darkest Hour.”
In the book, the young protagonists, Jack and Annie, are sent into occupied France to rescue their friend Kathleen who has sent a coded message telling them where to find her. When they decipher the message, they discover that Kathleen, who was herself sent to France to bring two young girls, the daughters of Jewish scientists, back to Great Britain from the orphanage where their parents had left them, is now sheltering a whole group of Jewish orphans in a cave after finding the orphanage abandoned. Jack and Annie have to get Kathleen and the children out of France before the D-Day invasion begins the following day and without being caught by the occupying Nazis.
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After finding Kathleen and the children, Jack muses that, “He couldn’t understand why the Nazis hated Jewish people so much. He’d read about it and seen movies about it, but he’d never understood it.” My son wanted to know, too: “Why did they hate Jewish people, Mommy?” Of course, there’s no good answer to that question, any more than there’s a good answer for why anti-Semitism still exists today.
There’s even less of an answer when you’ve chosen that Jewishness for yourself, and by extension for your children: So, you hate me now, but 11 years ago we were cool? Really?
Since that night, he’s borrowed a book about World War II from the school library and we’ve been able to have some more in depth, but still age-appropriate, conversations about war, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. Two of his great-grandfathers fought for the Allies and with Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the U.S.) just behind us, there’s been lots of opportunity for discussion.
When I was 7, I was terrified of nuclear war. I became obsessed by it and would lie awake at night, paralyzed by fear, expecting a mushroom cloud at any moment. There were two spray-painted body outlines on the black rocks near my house, one with “Hiroshima,” the other with “Nagasaki” printed underneath. I stared at them every day on my way to and from school, imagining bodies evaporating, leaving only a ghostly outline. I was an anxious kid.
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I was afraid that the same thing might happen for my son. That his questions might devolve into the same free-floating anxiety, obsessive worrying, and sleepless nights, but that hasn’t happened. While he has had a couple of bad dreams, in general he’s handled the information well, and I know that because I see it coming out in his play.
George Eisen, in his book “Children and Play in the Holocaust,” describes how children in ghettos and concentration camps, those who were still healthy enough to move around, used their play as a way of making sense of what was happening to them. While the adults around them tried to use play to distract them from the trauma of their experience, the children themselves used play to prepare themselves for the world they were facing.
One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp’s daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing — for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone’s escape or resistance plans. Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.
In the same way that children play games of home and school when those are the environments they know, children in camps played games that reflected the terrible reality they were facing and the environment, awful though it was, that they knew.
In my life as a teacher, I spend a lot of time documenting play, photographing it, videotaping it, taking down transcripts of children’s conversations, and analyzing it all. After so many years of documentation practice, the habit now bleeds into my parenting. While I was baking this weekend, my son came up to report on the play that he and his sister were undertaking in the basement.
“Mommy, we’re not playing daycare anymore. We’re playing… what’s that place Jewish mommies and daddies put their kids in the second war?”
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“Yeah, an orphanage, and when we find a big group of stuffies we pretend that the owner of the orphanage was killed by the Nazis and now we have to take care of them.”
While it may be strange that my children are playing orphanage in their suburban basement, it’s encouraging to me that they are able to use their play as a way of processing this admittedly traumatizing information, that they’re not holding it all inside the way I did as a child. Sometimes our adult perspective on play is too rose-colored, the edges too rounded, the rough parts sanded away by our memories. It is not a child’s job to make adults feel better by engaging in idealized play that presents a sanitized version of the world. Children use their play to make sense of what the world is, not what we wish it was. It’s our job to make it better.