Today my son wore a red shirt to school. He knew it was Holocaust Memorial Day but he didn’t feel like wearing his white shirt, which is what most Israeli children wear on this day of national mourning. I guess the collective Jewish consciousness surrounding the holocaust is not yet part of his identity. He’s a second grader and we’ve only been in Israel for a year and a half and while he knows it’s a sad day and that a lot of Jewish people died a long time ago, we have not gotten into the details. So it’s not part of him yet in the way that I know it will be. He told me he wore red because of the fires. I didn’t press him for more information partly because we were running late for school and partly because I’m not ready to know what he knows. The fires from the Jewish businesses burning? From the synagogues burning? Or the fire from the ovens.
Learning about the Shoah is part of the Israeli public school curriculum although I don’t fully know what it entails. I know that in kindergarten they learn about Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish Pediatrician and renowned children’s book author who ran an orphanage in Warsaw. He was offered freedom when his orphans were collected for the train ride to Treblinka but he opted instead to stay with and comfort them along the journey. That’s where the story ends for the kindergartners. They don’t learn about how those 192 children, some as young as three years old, boarded a train in 1942 holding their teddy bears and were never seen again. They will learn eventually.
And they will learn that it didn’t happen that long ago. It happened when Grandma was a little girl. And that her father was lucky enough to leave Poland for America before the war. They will learn that their Savta’s family was not as lucky and while Savta’s mommy made it out of Germany in time, she and her brother were the only ones.
Eventually they’ll see all of the pictures of the SS officers marching. They’ll see the cattle cars used for transport and learn how many people were shoved inside. They’ll learn about the impossible conditions in the ghettos. They’ll hear the stories of the selection and children taken from their mothers and freezing winters and the fake baby carriages used to fool the Red Cross during their visits. They’ll learn about Anne Frank and Hannah Szenes and Elie Weisel and so many others. They will learn about the resistance and the partisans and the non-Jews who hid their neighbors. They will learn about the mass graves and the starvation and the “medical research.” They’ll learn about the Jewish skin turned to soap and lampshades. They’ll learn about the gas chambers and the ovens. They will learn enough for six million lifetimes. They’ll have nightmares of being in the camps. Of being chased by guards. Of riding in trains. And then they will be defined in some way, large or small, by the Holocaust. And another generation of Jews will share the burden of our collective consciousness.
When we got to school we saw most of the other kids wearing white shirts and for a moment I had wished he would have worn his also. But then a part of me was glad that this terrible scar on our history is not yet part of him in the way that I know it will be eventually. Because once it is, it cannot be undone. His understanding of humanity will be forever altered.