“Mom, what do you know about the Holocaust?”
You swallow, take a deep breath, play for time, your mind racing. “They’re not old enough to know about this,” you think to yourself frantically. “Can’t I hold on to their innocence just a little bit longer?”
They’ll never be old enough. No one is old enough to really deal with the atrocities of the world. I know I’m not. But ignoring evil does not make it go away. Ignoring evil gives it space to grow. We must face evil, and we must help our children to face it.
There are many wonderful stories you can use to talk to your children about the Holocaust. I recently discovered a beautiful story called One Candle. It is the story of a young girl who, with her sister, sneaks a potato out of the concentration camp kitchen to make a single Hanukkah candle. Every year since the war, she and her sister make a single candle from a potato to put in the window next to their menorah and tell the story to their grandchildren.
Although fictionalized, this story illustrates a series of lessons for us about how to talk to our kids about the Holocaust.
Tell about hope as well as horror.
The Holocaust is a traumatic event, not just in the history of the Jewish people but in the history of the world. When confronted with questions about the Holocaust, our instinct is often to try to convey that trauma and horror to our children. But the horror of the Holocaust is only part of the story.
The story of the Holocaust is both a story of the worst of human behavior and the best. Every survivor’s story includes stories of celebrating in hiding, of helping or getting help in secret, of holding on in some way. We must remember to tell this part of the story too.
The grandmother in One Candle does not hide the difficulty of life in the camps. “The camp was like the worst prison you could imagine,” she says. “We were always hungry, always cold.” When she tells us how she stole the potato, the grandmother conveys both the risk she took and the strength she got from this small act of resistance and celebration. “I thought my chest would burst from fear,” she says, but “That Hanukkah candle lifted us. It lifted us to the stars.”
Be age-appropriate: We need to tell our children the truth, but we do not need to tell them the whole truth at every age.
“What would they have done if they’d caught you?” one of the grandchildren asks. “Great-Aunt Rose gives a little moan,” the narrator, one of the other grandchildren, tells us. “There, there. We were all right,” Grandma replies.
As adults, we know what would have happened if she had been caught. But our kids do not know, and they do not need to know yet.
When our kids ask about the Holocaust, we often lean toward one of two extremes. Some parents avoid the question, telling their children they are too young to understand. Others go overboard, telling their children all the horrors they know about. I once read a blog by a parent who objected that the book her fourth-grader was reading did not “even begin to scratch the surface of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust.” So she sat him down and filled in the pieces: “people beaten to death in the streets” and Jews “murdered by the millions.”
There is a middle ground. We can introduce our children to the concepts of the Holocaust a few at a time, in age-appropriate ways. Very young children can understand that there was a time that people were mean to Jews simply because they were Jews. Elementary school-age kids can understand having to leave your home and move into the ghetto where life was hard. We do not need to tell ten-year-olds about gas chambers and people beaten to death on the streets. They have plenty of time to learn about that.
Teaching our children about the Holocaust a little at a time gives them space to assimilate both the horror and the hope, and to learn the lessons we want them to learn.
Talk about why we must remember this.
“Why do you think Grandma wants to do this every year?” one of the grandchildren in One Candle whispers. “I don’t know for sure,” the narrator tells us, “But I think it has to do with being strong in the bad time and remembering it in the good time. And for the women in Grandma’s barracks and the others who didn’t live to come out.”
We do not teach our children about the Holocaust because we want to fill their minds with the horrors of the world. We teach them about the Holocaust so that the lost will be remembered. We teach them so they will know why they must confront evil wherever they find it. We teach them so they will know they can be strong when strength is difficult.
Accept their response, whatever it might be
As we tell these stories, we will find that each child responds in their own way. Like the four children in the Passover Haggadah, they may respond with tears, with anger, with silence, with confusion. Almost always, they will respond with questions. All of these are appropriate reactions to this story.
We must let children rage, let them question, and let them work through all these feelings, whether their anger is directed at people or at G-d. It is better to allow them time and space to work through their feelings with us, where we can help them, than to force them to deal with those feelings on their own.
Remember, at some point, your children will learn about the Holocaust. Be the one who decides how they learn about it. Be there to help them handle the story. Help them understand why we need to know about this. Be there to guide them through the deeper questions of what this story means for our past and our future.
Talking to your children about the Holocaust can feel overwhelming and scary, but there are many resources that can help you. Your child’s teachers can help. It’s okay to say to your child “I don’t know, let’s ask your teacher.” If the teachers don’t know the answers, we can help too. The resources at www.TeachTheShoah.org are a good place to start, and you can contact us through the website.
 One Candle, by Eve Bunting. Joanna Cotler Books, 2002.