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