The Holocaust for Young Children

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I do not understand.

Why this urgency to introduce the Holocaust to young children? The plethora of picture books and middle grade fiction on the topic seems never ending. Book after book about horrible events with little to anchor them historically, the latest being John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

That’s my father’s 1938 Third Reich passport up there with its big red J for Jew. He came to the US with his mother at age 14; his father chose to stay and was killed. As for my mother, she left Berlin in 1942 for England where her Jewish parents were interned as enemy aliens. So the history of the Holocaust is also the history of my family and you’d think that I’d be thrilled to see all these books, that I’d want children to be exposed to the Holocaust as soon as possible.

Um…no.

A primary purpose of Holocaust education should focus on teaching students the history of the Holocaust. This means a focus on what happened and why it happened; the key individuals and groups engulfed in the history and the myriad ways in which they affected and/or were affected by key decisions and events; and when, where, why, and how key decisions and events were played out, and the ramifications of the latter. If it neglects to focus on the history, then what is the purpose of Holocaust education?

Samuel Totten, Should there be Holocaust Education for K-4 Students? The Answer is No” (from Social Sciences and the Young Learner, Volume 12, Number 1, September/October, 1999.)

In fact, I’m with Totten. What is the purpose of introducing the Holocaust to young children? In the case of the recent books I’ve seen, it seems to be to inform, engage, and expose young readers to a dreadful crime against humanity, a genocide that the adult creators laudably want to be sure never happens again in any way. (Or at least not here as it does seem to have happened again in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur.)

But is this intended child audience developmentally ready to really understand the Holocaust? Certainly my 4th graders admire the acts of heroism and bravery, are shocked at the situations of incredible cruelty and prejudice, and are able to empathize with the suffering presented in these books. And they can go beyond them to talk of intolerance and injustice. But to even begin to understand the Holocaust in history, in the way it really needs to be understood, not at all. They are not ready.

While elementary students are able to empathize with individual survivor accounts, they often have difficulty placing these personal stories in a larger historical context.

Teaching about the Holocaust: A Resource Book for Educators, page 3.

So how about waiting until they are ready? Despite some people’s worries, the Holocaust is not going away any time soon.

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19 Comments

Filed under Children's Literature, Historical Fiction, History, Holocaust, Reading, Teaching, Writing

19 responses to “The Holocaust for Young Children

  1. Ariel Cooke

    Hi Monica,
    I’m one of GraceAnne’s students at Rutgers and I always like your child_lit posts.

    This entry really struck home for me because my 6-year-old just came home from school asking me about Kristallnacht last week. Apparently it was the anniversary and her school (Solomon Schechter in West Orange, NJ) had a commemorative assembly. The kindergardeners were excused but not the first graders like her.

    I myself went to a Jewish school but I don’t remember learning about the Holocaust before I was at least 8 or 9. I was upset but I hate to intervene or complain unless it’s absolutely necessary as I tend to be the squeaky wheel anyway. The article really puts the whole thing in perspective for me and I plan to give it to the principal tomorrow.

    So thank you very much!

    Ariel

  2. Big Grandma

    I wonder if your excellent question might not be further refined to:
    “Why are there so many weak and glib books about the Holocaust experience for young children?” Perhaps one of the reasons is our eternal hope to build conscience into the young since so many of the older do not seem to have one. As I have written on several occasions about “Pajamas,” at the time when memory of Holocaust loses of life (and that includes Roms, Gays, the mentally disabled, political “enemies,” Soviet soldiers, Jehova’s Witnesses, Jews, and many others) is fading and much denial is evident. Too, Holocaust education seems weaker because more and more teachers have not been taught, nor do they read. The “Pajamas” was a starred book in “SLJ” is a disgrace. Today’s NYTBR (11/12) review of the Boyne is accurate but you’d never think it when you realize the awards the ” fantasy” is being given.

    We teach the young, maybe because we hope they won’t repeat our mistakes but we must teach within a frame of history, events, personalities, and economics.

    Thanks for your thoughtful take on so many matters, Monica.

    –Big Grandma

    • peter

      Yes I agree, let’s wait until they are ready to learn. Let’s see, 8, no, 10 years old, uh no, 16 uh……maybe, no not yet hold on, don’t worry the Holocaust is not going anywhere, 18, no, 24, oh well it’s too late I have to go to work now, sorry, just put in on the shelf, I am sure someone will read about it.

  3. Ariel, let me know what happens.

    Ruth, thanks! I think you are right that the books are because adults are troubled by adults and figure they can somehow get kids on the right track when young. I posted the Totten quote because he and others have done a lot of work in the realm of Holocaust education, but I don’t get the sense that those in the children’s lit world are particularly familiar with it. (Or with those theories of development that have to do with historical understanding.)

    I’m posting a query about this on child_lit and will quote you. Hope to generate some thoughtful discussion on the topic.

  4. I had avoided even picking up an Arc of the Pajamas book at BEA & ALA because, based on reviews and feedback, I didn’t want to read it; now I’ve been sent a review copy and may be picking it up soon despite my reservations. (Enough voices have weighed in that I don’t feel a need to add my own.)

  5. I too want to thank you for bringing up this question. I’m not an educator, but a mom who has worked for many years on school book sales (with teachers and librarians), and it seems that we have this conversation almost every year – do we put the latest Holocaust book on our list or not? And usually, for the reasons you all give above, the answer for us has been “not”.

    And the issues that came up when I used to run my synagogue’s school book sale raised other questions as well. It was very frustrating and challenging to keep our list fresh each year, when so many new books with Jewish themes or Jewish characters were about the Holocaust.

  6. Big Grandma

    Try this item on for size. Maybe the background of Japan in Korea should have been taught–including to Koreans in the U.S.

    The enitre hjistory of Japan in Korea, Manchuria, China, is shoddy. I can’t recall, do U.S. youngters learn about it?

    The following appeared on Boston.com:
    Headline: 6th-grade book stirs rethinking
    Date: November 12, 2006

    “The Dover-Sherborn Regional School Committee is grappling with
    whether to ban an award-winning book from sixth-grade classes after
    complaints from some parents that the book is racist and sexually
    explicit.”
    __________________________________________________________

    To see this recommendation, click on the link below or cut and paste it
    into a Web browser:

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2006/11/12/6th_grade_book_stirs_rethinking?p1=email_to_a_friend

    ______

  7. In my school, for 5th grade, I used to teach literature groups and on the list given to me was The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss. I always tried to teach the book in the context of the history of the holocaust, using our first session as an introduction about the holocaust before beginning to read the book.

    I also read them Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti.

    I was always a little uncomfortable teaching this to children, wondering, as you do, whether it should be done at this age. I do have some picture books in my library about the holocaust but I do reserve them for 5th and 6th graders. And we have The Diary of Anne Frank which is very popular with the 6th grade girls.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. You verbalized some of my latent concerns. I no longer teach literature groups (to my dismay) and the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry has been substituted for The Upstairs Room but I don’t think the classroom teachers spend too much time on the background of the book as they hurry along trying to meet state standards.

    I had considered buying The Boy in the Striped Pajamas but after reading your post and the comments I think I’ll pass on it. Without being able to put a context with the book I’d be concerned about my students reading it. Thank you…

    I do worry about the disappearance of childhood these days….

  8. HoloScholar

    For those that might be interested there is a great new Online Holocaust Resource.

    Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team

    maintains a website at:
    http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/

  9. LJ Edinger

    I like what you wrote and hope readers of this post realize that your grandfather could not see himself leaving Germany.

  10. karina herrera

    why do we teach children about the holocaust ?
    why is it important that people wont forget?

  11. Jaci Coehoorn

    I understand your concern about teaching the Holocaust to young children, and I don’t disagree with you on that. However, I am very much annoyed at your bashing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in your argument, since that book explicitly states that it was not written for children. I would not recommend teaching elementary students with this book, but I do recommend it to every college student and adult I come into contact with.

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  13. Lee

    I think children in grades 5-8 should have a mandatory reading of a book related to Holocaust Education. We spend weeks and weeks on Black History and never relate the underlying fact of what hatred, prejudice and bullying can lead to. Sadly, I have taught in a district for 34 years and have yet to see a teacher even attempt to teach a book about that time period. I ,myself, was required to read The Diary of Anne Frank in 5th grade. It left a lasting impression on me. The teacher, a black teacher, related so much in a wonderful way. I am sure he met with some question by colleagues. He had the courage to do what he felt we needed to learn. I wish more teachers of all backgrounds had such courage and convictions to never forget.

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  17. Rena Rotenberg

    Just as we begin to tell/educate children about George Weshington and his role in American history, so we should lay the foundation for teaching the Holocaust to young children. One way, is to show different candles; Shabbat, Hanukah, Havdalah, birthday and mention why we have them, so we should show a Yahrzeit candle, and say that this candle is for the people/children we remember. I remember discussing this with a preschool teacher, who did just this with candles; it was very effective.
    The other technique is to read “The Tatooed Torah” by Marvel Ginsburg, a true story about a Torah scroll that made its way from Brno to England to Chicago; the atrocities are not mentioned, but the Nazis are as they loot and steal scrolls. A very powerful book and very suitable for young children.

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