Stories are the bounty of Jewish culture. The Torah builds from our origin with history and lessons for living and dying.
If the Torah is a tree of life, then storytelling is its roots. We teach our values to our children through the stories of our ancestors.
What, then, do we do when we need to tell stories that are difficult to hear? How do we apply our tradition of storytelling to the story of the Holocaust?
I asked a group of Jewish educators what resources they use to teach the Holocaust in younger grades. Many said they use allegorical stories, like Eve Bunting’s Terrible Things.
Now, I love Eve Bunting. Her One Candle is one of the best books I’ve found to begin teaching the Holocaust to little kids. However, I am not a fan of Terrible Things, or of the use of allegories for teaching the Holocaust.
Before we talk about allegories and the Holocaust, let’s consider allegories in general. The reason to use an allegory is to teach morals while providing emotional distance. Allegories do this through abstraction.
An allegory allows us to hear a story without needing a personal connection to it. By teaching the importance of hard work through a story about a tortoise and a hare, rather than hard working and lazy people, the story becomes more universally instructive. If instead of a tortoise and a hare, Aesop had used two different types of people, an Athenian and a Spartan for instance, the story would have connected with far fewer people. At the same time, by using animals, no one is insulted by having their group chosen to be the negative example.
Allegories have no facts and no history, and that’s the point. In an allegory, the facts are condensed into an abstraction so the moral distillate is clarified.
In some cases, the abstraction allows us to hear a difficult story without being overly disturbed by it. I expect that this is the reason some people like allegory for teaching the Holocaust. The abstraction provides some distance, while still getting the moral lesson across. Terrible things happening to a little rabbit are perceived as less distressing than if they were happening to a child.
The idea behind Holocaust allegory is to teach the lessons of the Holocaust without approaching the actual “scary” story of the Holocaust itself. I think this is a fruitless task, however. I think allegorical stories like Terrible Things mean far less to young students with no Holocaust background than they do to the adults reading them. When the facts are stripped away, the context is lost, but to truly understand Holocaust allegory, you need the context.
Teaching the moral lessons of the Holocaust is indeed a major reason to talk about the Holocaust. Our rallying cry of “Never Again” can only be fulfilled if we learn the lessons of the Holocaust.
However, we do not want to reduce the Holocaust merely to a moral story. The Holocaust is a core part of the story of the Jewish people. When we teach the Holocaust through allegory, that story is lost. It would be like teaching Passover through allegories about freedom, while never mentioning Moses, the Israelites, or Egypt.
Each of our holidays does double duty: they teach moral lessons while also retelling the story of our people. It is through these stories that we learn who we are and from where we come. All of our Torah stories do this: they teach lessons about living and they tell our history. We should teach the Holocaust in the same way.
Nonetheless, the Holocaust is a difficult story. There are many aspects of the Holocaust that are too terrible for children to handle. How do we find a less intense way to tell them this story? How do we allow some distance?
There are many ways of creating distance. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus is a good example. Maus creates distance by turning the people into animals in the visualization of the story. It is not an allegory, however; it is a direct memoir. By taking human beings out of the picture, Spiegelman creates enough distance to make it appropriate for a wider audience.
Maus is not appropriate for young children, of course, but similar techniques have been used to make other difficult stories appropriate for young children. Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt tells some very disturbing stories, including stories about throwing Jewish babies into the Nile and killing innocent little Egyptian children. By doing it with animation, however, the story becomes palatable, even for the youngest audiences.
The most direct way to create distance for a story like the Holocaust, though, is by walling off portions of the story you feel are not yet appropriate to tell. By reducing the depth of the story which you are telling, you can begin to tell this important story without traumatizing your students.
There are many aspects of the story of the Holocaust that are not appropriate to tell young children. However, there are also many aspects of the story of the Holocaust that are appropriate to tell young children. We should hold the stories of mass murder and people beaten to death in the streets for much older students. In the youngest grades, we can tell stories about living in the ghetto, about hiding, and about helpers. We can tell true stories at any age if we do not think we have to tell the whole story at every age.
Age-appropriate Holocaust stories
Many survivors were young children during the war. Some of their memories have been turned into marvelous, age-appropriate, relatable memoirs for young children. These stories highlight essential morals as well as the factual history of the Holocaust.
The lesson of taking care of family comes through clearly in My Doll, the memoir of Yael Rosner, which is appropriate for 1st and 2nd grades. Yael’s mother spends her time sneaking children out of the ghetto, while Yael hides in the cellar of an abandoned building. When it is finally Yael’s turn to escape, she insists they must go back, at great risk, to rescue the doll she has been taking care of like her daughter. “A mother would not leave her daughter,” she declares.
Hannah Gofrit’s memoir, I Wanted to Fly like a Butterfly, beautifully written for 3rd to 4th graders, highlights the lesson of watching out for each other, even across lines of faith and community. Hannah and her mother are hiding in Warsaw with a non-Jewish family with two teenage daughters. In spite of the teenagers’ expected resentment of the disruption of their homelife, they eventually come to care about Hannah and help her when they do not have to.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, of sexology fame, has a wonderful new memoir entitled Roller-Coaster Grandma. Dr. Ruth tells about being strong for her parents as at the age of eleven, she leaves alone on the train to Switzerland. Through her story, we learn the importance of being strong in difficult circumstances and of advocating for yourself, as she has to in the orphanage where she is sent.
These are just a few of the many age-appropriate stories that exist for teaching the Holocaust and its lessons to young children. Like the lessons of the Torah, the lessons of the Holocaust can best be taught through true stories of the Holocaust. By using true stories, we simultaneously begin to introduce our children to an important part of their Jewish heritage.
 See my blog about using One Candle to begin discussing the Holocaust with your children: blogs.timesofisrael.com/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-the-holocaust
 I’ve also always found Terrible Things to be a pretty scary story in itself. And I’ve never been clear what the animals were supposed to do about the Terrible Things anyway, which makes the moral lesson harder to discern.
 You can find out more about this unit, including a lesson plan, here: www.teachtheshoah.org/class/lesson-plans/earlyelementary. You can find the actual story at Yad Vashem, here: www.yadvashem.org/education/educational-materials/learning-environment/online-educational-unit/my-doll-rozner.html.
 You can find out more about this unit, including a lesson plan, here: www.teachtheshoah.org/class/lesson-plans/lateelementary.