Safety Nets for Teaching the Holocaust to Children

The cover of "Fragments", a slightly fictionalized memoir of the Kindertransport by Naomi Shmuel about the experiences of her mother, poet Karen Gershon. Appropriate for 5th grade. Source: Yad Vashem.
The cover of "Fragments", a slightly fictionalized memoir of the Kindertransport by Naomi Shmuel about the experiences of her mother, poet Karen Gershon. Appropriate for 5th grade. Source: Yad Vashem.

Discussing the Holocaust with young children is important but takes careful planning.  How we present Holocaust stories makes a big difference to whether the lessons feel traumatic to them.

The last few weeks we’ve been discussing ways of teaching the Holocaust that encourage learning, including

Today, we are going to discuss some hints and safety nets that encourage learning and avoid trauma.

In elementary school, stick to stories about survivors. With survivor stories, we know that the children in these stories survived these experiences and grew up. Most are grandparents now. To emphasize this idea, start at the end of the story, introducing the protagonist as an adult who wants to tell them a story that happened when s/he was a child. This way, the students never fear for the survival of their hero.

With the youngest students (grades K-2), emphasize that this happened a long time ago, in a faraway land. This perspective adds some distance and reduces the likelihood that the children will become fearful that something similar could happen to them. (While we want our teens to consider the need for vigilance to avoid repeating the Holocaust, young children generally cannot handle this fear.)

Recognize that for children, safety is not in homes but with families. An intact family and loving parents makes an enormous difference to the security of a child. Therefore, for the younger students (grades K-3), choose stories of children who have intact, loving families throughout. Although one parent may be lost, the child should get to the end of the story with at least one parent still alive and still caring for the child.

Work within your students’ attention spans. The Holocaust is heavy material that can take a lot of focus. Know the limits of your students’ attention spans. Expect that these lessons will take multiple classes to cover. In each class, plan to use one block of your class’ attention span for your Holocaust lesson and then move on to other things.

Allow students to respond in their own ways. The Holocaust is a solemn subject but it is also a difficult subject. If we want our students to understand, then we must allow them to engage with the material. We must let them react to it. If we expect them to be quiet in these lessons, then we are expecting them to disengage and, therefore, not to learn.

Give students time to ask questions. Within the lessons, be sure to allow students to ask questions. Student understanding of this difficult material is far more important than getting through the final lesson. In the same vein, never teach your final Holocaust lesson on the final day of classes. It is essential that students have a chance to contemplate the material and come back to you later with questions.

Don’t make any question seem taboo. Some young students will know more about the Holocaust than the average child their age. They may have older siblings or have a family connection. These students may ask questions that are not age-appropriate for the rest of the class. Do not say “oh, we can’t talk about that until you are older.” Instead say, “yes, that’s true” in a flat voice and move on to the next subject. Responding as if a subject is taboo makes it more interesting to kids.

Involve the parents from the beginning. Teaching the parents about the new way you are presenting the Holocaust is almost as important as teaching the teachers. Almost every student in your class will go home to their parents and tell them about the difficult story they discussed in class. It does no good to develop a carefully non-traumatic, age-appropriate Holocaust education program if the parents fill in the trauma as soon as the children come home. A parent training seminar and handout on how to talk to children about the Holocaust is therefore an essential part of the program you develop (e.g. see http://www.teachtheshoah.org/parents/).

By maintaining these safety nets, we can make the lessons appropriate for each age group, and, as they say at Yad Vashem, bring our students “safely in and safely out” of the lesson.

You can find out more about teaching the Holocaust from in a non-traumatic way starting in elementary school, including specific curriculum suggestions, at www.TeachTheShoah.org.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas.
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