In 1938, my grandfather escaped Austria on the kindertransport. He was sent to England, where he lived with a family who sponsored him. His parents were sent to the Isle of Wight, where they were prisoners for most of the war. Eventually he made it to the US, where he lived briefly in Ohio before being conscripted into the Army, and sent back to Europe to work as a translator.
The Holocaust is very much a part of my family narrative. It’s part of my history, and it’s important to me, but as I build my own family, I’ve started to think about the ways I want to address this issue with my kids. Here’s what I won’t do:
1. I won’t teach my kids to fear anti-Semitism around every corner.
A truly unhealthy amount of my Jewish education was predicated on concerns about anti-Semitism. The upshot of Jewish history–I thought, after 13 years of Jewish school–was basically that people wanted to kill us. Even in the United States, the KKK wanted to march on our streets and lynch us if possible.
I know now that there are crazy people here in America, and all over the world, who really do want to kill Jews. And there are isolated terrifying incidents, like the recent shooting in Kansas City. But, particularly in America, these incidents are few and far between. And it simply does not make sense to let those crazy people write the narrative of the Jewish people, when there is so much more of a story to tell. I don’t love Judaism because it has survived everyone who has tried to abolish it. I love it because it is a rich tradition of wisdom, gratitude, and social justice.
2. I won’t teach them that the State of Israel is a panacea.
All through my schooling I heard over and over that if Israel had existed in the 1930s, we would have been spared the Holocaust. True, but the existence of Israel does not mean we as Jews can act with impunity.
There are many wonderful things to be said about Israel. The quality of the hummus at any random falafel joint in the country alone is enough to give me faith in a God who cares about Israel. But at the end of the day, Israel is a country, just like America, Italy and Djibouti. Its government makes some good choices (universal health care) and some terrible choices (treatment of Women of the Wall, for instance). It is wonderful that Israel stands as a safe haven for Jews in danger around the world, but that particular stance shouldn’t get Israel off the hook for anything else.
Jews have a homeland, after millennia of hoping for just such a thing–with the homeland comes the responsibility to be a moral country.
3. I won’t teach them to use the victims of the Nazis as political pawns.
As anyone who has ever participated in any lengthy comment feed can tell you, Godwin’s law is real. The suffering of Jews at the hands of the Nazis is equated with just about everything these days. “Never Forget” has, for all intents and purposes, been co-opted as a political slogan by dozens of causes of all kinds.
As Jews, I think we should be incredibly careful to set aside victims of the Holocaust, and not use them as political pawns. Yes, we should learn from their story, but let’s not put words in their mouths. Their silence is a more powerful tool. What we take from it is on us, not them, and their memories.
I will teach my kids about the Holocaust. About my grandfather and his escape, and his heroism in returning to the country that hated him. I’ll teach them what happened in an age-appropriate way, using books like “Let the Celebrations Begin,” “Benno and the Night of Broken Glass,” “Snow Treasure,” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I’ll teach them how important it is to stand up when you see injustice around you. And I’ll teach them that there’s value in fear. I just don’t want fear of the Holocaust to be the driving force in their lives.