Telling Kids about the Holocaust: A Humanist Jewish Perspective

Written by NaomiRG on Feb 21, 2015 in General News

There are topics that all parents dread talking about with their kids.  Sex, of course, is one. Death is another.  There’s no consensus on how or when to discuss these tricky topics with kids.  Like everyone else, we’ve done the best we can to introduce our nine-year-old to these topics in ways that age-appropriate and reflect our values.

For Jewish parents, there’s another topic that parents dread talking about with their kids: the Holocaust. In some ways, this is an even more difficult topic to discuss than those others. Sex may be an uncomfortable topic, but ultimately it’s a positive part of human experience. And death, while scary, is at least a natural part of the order of things.

But the Holocaust isn’t.

So how in the world do you tell your child that a mere 70 years ago, six million Jews in Europe who were just like you were slaughtered for no other reason than they were just like you?  How do you tell your child that the Nazis would have looked at her and thrown her—and me, and many of the people she loves—into the gas chamber without a second thought?  How do you tell her that there’s still plenty of people in the world that still wish us harm and even death because we’re Jews? And how can you even start to talk about the atrocity that is six million murders?

Like sex and death, there’s no consensus on how to talk to your kids about the Holocaust, and I’m not expert who can give you advice. All I can do is share my perspective on the issue—one Jewish parent of a nine-year-old, and in my case, a Humanistic Jew who is committed to teaching my child about our proud place in human history, but who does not believe in a higher power.

A few years ago, as I started to wonder how to tell my daughter about the Holocaust, I did what modern everywhere do—I asked my Facebook friends.  My collective Facebook hive, which has a high population of Jews, resoundingly told me to give her books. So I did. I started with Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, which is about the Danish resistance effort to save the Jewish population. That seemed like a gentle and positive way to introduce the topic, and she loved it.

For Hanukkah this year, we had an important rite of passage: I gave her a copy of Anne Frank. I had told her about the book, and she was very excited. Unfortunately, I fear that nine may be a little young for this book—not just because of the topic, but because she’s found it too boring so far to get into it. “I want to like it,” she said, “but all they do is sit in a room and quarrel.” Sadly, Anne Frank can’t compete with Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, so we’ll try again in a year or so.

So, she’s read a little about the Holocaust. But that didn’t prepare me for last week, when I was watching an episode of Genealogy Roadshow.  A woman on the show was researching her Austrian Jewish relatives during the Holocaust. There was a short historical segment about what happened to the Jews in Austria, and my daughter walked in at this point. I started to turn it off, but she said she wanted to watch.

So she did. And then she started to cry.

I would do anything to live in a world where I didn’t have to disrupt my sweet daughter’s childhood with such a rude awakening. But that’s not possible, so I cuddled her on the couch and we talked.  She asked me if we had any relatives that were killed in the Holocaust. I told her that some of our relatives in Bessarabia had been able to run away from the Nazis. But her father’s grandmother decided she was too old to run, and she was killed. And my grandmother’s brother was too proud to give up the home and the livelihood he had earned, so he also didn’t run, and he and his wife and his three teenage daughters were all killed.

Of course, this made her cry more.  Her reaction was both heartbreaking and fascinating. “There were six million Jews killed!” she said. “Six million! Can you imagine how many Jews there would be in the world today if they hadn’t killed six million Jews?”

I tried to comfort her as much as I could. I told her that this was one of the reasons why it was so important to me to raise her Jewish, even though I don’t have Jewish religious beliefs.  Those bastards tried to wipe us off of the Earth. I will do my part to not let them succeed.  That resonated with her. I told her that there was a great Jewish culture that thrived for many years in Eastern Europe that was mostly gone now—and that I want to teach her about our ancestors who lived there and keep the memory of that culture alive.

There’s more I want to keep telling her. I want to tell her that as Jews and Humanists, it is our duty to stand up for other people of color and LGBT people and other are oppressed for being who they are.  And I want to make sure that she knows that while the Holocaust is essential to remember, it doesn’t define us.  As a Jewish Humanist parent, I pass on our heritage when I take my child to see Fiddler on the Roof, or sing Tumbalaika, or tell her about her great-grandparents.  Being a Jew is awesome—and nobody can take that away from us.

So I guess that’s how I chose to talk to my daughter about the Holocaust—as a part of our complex human story as Jews.  I would love to hear how other Jews go about taking on this difficult task as well.

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3 Comments on “Telling Kids about the Holocaust: A Humanist Jewish Perspective”

  • Dave Musicant March 12, 2015 pm31 5:10 pm . Reply

    Thanks for the post, Naomi!

  • Ellen F April 9, 2015 pm30 11:53 pm . Reply

    Thank you for sharing this. A very tough subject. One thing that we always also made sure to remember and teach was that there were also 5 million non-Jews who were killed in the Holocaust- including LGBT people, people with disabilities, Roma people, mixed-race people, resisters, etc. I think it is important not to give the impression (even inadvertently) that what happened to others doesn’t matter by comparison.

  • Kevin littlewood July 14, 2016 pm31 4:45 pm . Reply

    How at a young age do I tell my daughter about this she’s nine and not Jews I’m a older mother that knows a lot but think it’s to sad and horriik to tell her yet thanks

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