As a parent and a rabbi I think a lot about history and the impact of personal narrative.
My grandfather raised my sister and me on stories of his childhood on the Lower East Side, principled accounts of his decades on the draft board, and how he persevered to serve our country in both World Wars I and II.
I’ve spent hours with elderly relatives, mining their memories for the details of family history which I endeavor to share with the generations of my family. And I try to tell my children stories of my father, trying to keep him alive through stories that show his wisdom, principles, humor and love of them, his grandchildren – okay, and his love of coffee ice cream, too!
In the broader scope of Jewish history, when we were on sabbatical in Israel 3 years ago, I made sure my young children sat at the feet of our dear friend Ruth Shabtai as she spoke of her work alongside Moshe Dayan as they fought for the State of Israel to exist.
Why? Because of the power of personal narrative in my life, at home and in broader Jewish history. I recall vividly my 6th grade religious school class, when Mrs. Bernstein brought Karen’s dad to class to describe watching Kristallnacht in Nuremberg. This was real – it was my friend who sat next to me in class – her dad! In rabbinical school I chose to interview Jews-by-Choice and Holocaust survivors for papers that could have been straight research reports.
And so, these days, I regularly push the boundaries of comfort with bar/bat mitzvah families by encouraging students to seek out their family’s history – particularly if they have grandparents who were Holocaust survivors or left the Soviet Union. I’ll risk the discomfort for the sake of precious history. And what better a time than when a 13-year old is claiming her/his Jewish identity.
Indeed as both a parent and rabbi, I think about history and how to connect my students and children to their past. I’d like to believe that I am not half bad at this, linking my students and my children to our histories, enlivening it through real-life stories, even in some minimal way.
And so I believed, until my 8-year-old daughter came home recently and said she chose the the topic of her independent (read: choose-your-own-topic) project. What? The Holocaust. Yes, I was proud. Anxious, too. How was I going to keep her from Googling the topic and seeing any and every image? How would I protect her from learning more than she could handle in 3rd grade? I admit, I thought about telling her no.
But I did not say no. I am proud and maybe a little judgmental that I am not one of those parents who believes my kids shouldn’t know about the Holocaust. I mean, I was one of those children devouring When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit and The Upstairs Room when I was not much older than my eight-year-old daughter. I speak about the Sho’ah at home. My children know pieces of stories of survivors and refugees whom we know well, some of you here in this sanctuary. And in December I brought all three to Yad Vashem although I admit that they learned from the buildings and memorials and Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations (outside the museum) with our brilliant tour guide and have not yet entered the museum.
So, I paused, took more than a couple of deep breaths, and attempted a heart-to-heart conversation with a determined 8-year old who wanted independence and facts. Then I met with her teacher, and together we made a plan. I signed off on her project and set age-appropriate limits, her wise, amazing teacher had a sit-down with her, too. Colleagues recommended book titles, I gathered books from the library, and I read. I read the books first, looking for good narrative that wasn’t too graphic or terrifying. After I chose some titles, and assured her that picture books were the place for us to start, together Talia and I read several children’s books, all of which told a story (vs. being straightforwardly didactic) and were not scarily graphic. Most were based in facts given in the back pages of the books which Talia would return to after we read the story. I’d hear across the living room, “Mommy, who was Adolph…?”
“What’s a ghetto?”
“What’s a concentration camp?”
Talia’s questions were basic. I answered them plainly, cognizant of her age. Isn’t this what I always teach parents about tough topics – God, death et al.? I had to remember the same instruction.
As she read, her siblings (ages 8 and 12) joined in reading and curiosity. My children, who had some time ago stopped letting me read to them, cuddled around me and listened. Talia gathered her sought-after facts from those afterwords at the back of the books and began to write. She wrote and wrote and then announced she was done. I told her she had one more thing to do. She wasn’t happy. I insisted.
All three children have known or known about my 90-year-old friend Marsha, a family friend my whole life who is a Holocaust survivor. I had long wanted them to sit with Marsha and hear her story, but didn’t know when the right time was. So, as I put it off, at the same time I feared that Marsha might not live until the day they were old enough. Talia made the time right.
This time it was going to happen. We were headed to New Jersey to visit my mom. Before we left, I wrote Marsha. She speaks with young and older teens all the time. She challenges these students to bear witness, to tell her story. This is her mission. I asked Marsha to speak to my children, knowing that she would be protective of them, tell me they were too young and decline.
But, she did not. Instead, elegant, red-headed Marsha sat in her living room, surrounded by intricately needlepointed pillows and sepia-toned family photos, and told Talia, David and Noa her story (with some edits considering David and Talia’s age). Marsha began with describing the young red-headed girl in Krakow who was taunted by her schoolmates for being a Jew. She took out scrapbooks and clippings, her few treasured family photos and Holocaust publications that show her in concentration camp barracks. Marsha charged my 3 children clearly: they could tell her story, but they must tell only the truth and let the facts speak for themselves.
Before we left, Talia realized she was not done with her project. She heard that story as a charge to relate it, to retell Marsha Kreuzman’s experiences. My little girl then sat down and began to write about Marsha’s life: “Marsha Kreuzman is a survivor of the Holocaust. She survived 5 concentration camps. She was 13 when the war started. Because her family was Jewish, they got treated badly by the Nazis.”
Talia then thought hard about how to explain the Holocaust to her 3rd grade public school class – a class in which she is one of a handful of Jews. This is not a question that I, her mother, would have considered in 3rd grade.
So while I, Talia’s mom, have fancied myself informed by some decent pedagogy, willing to take on challenging topics, certainly to bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust and teach “Never again,” this time my daughter was the teacher, allowing me to let her lead, and to be present to guide her. She and her teacher opened a door and encouraged us to jump through that door together into important history.
NOTES ON BOOKS: There is a tremendous volume of children’s literature on the Holocaust of varying types. The books we read came from recommendations from Jewish educators and our own walks through the bookshelves. I delved into stories that were right for my child and listened when she told me she had read enough. Thus the list below provides ideas – it does not pretend to be exhaustive. Additionally, I am including links of some thoughtful essays and resources on children’s books on the Sho’ah and general teaching guidelines of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which are less about small children but helpful nonetheless.
- BOOKS TALIA & I READ:
- The Butterfly (Patricia Polacco)
- Irena’s Jars of Secret (Marcia Vaughan)
- Always Remember Me (Marisabina Russo)
- One Yellow Daffodil (David A. Adler)
- OTHER AGE-APPROPRIATE BOOKS I LIKED:
- Grandpa’s Third Drawer: Unlocking Holocaust Memories (Judy Tal Kopelman)
- In My Pocket (Dorrith M. Sim)
- The Feather-Bed Journey (Paula Kurzband Feder)
- The Tattooed Torah (Marvell Ginsburg)
- ESSAYS ON CHILDREN’S HOLOCAUST LITERATURE:
- What Would you Tell Your Toddler About the Holocaust?: http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/197993/would-you-tell-your-toddler-about-the-holocaust?utm_source=fb&utm_medium=post&utm_content=annefrankpicturebook&utm_campaign=feb2016
- Picture Books About the Holocaust: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/170927/picture-books-about-holocaust
- Enough Holocaust Books: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/190231/enough-holocaust-books-for-kids
- Tellings and Retellings in Books for Young Readers: http://lilith.org/articles/tellings-and-retellings-in-books-for-young-readers/
GENERAL RESOURCE ON TEACHING THE HOLOCAUST: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teaching Guidelines: https://www.ushmm.org/educators/teaching-about-the-holocaust/general-teaching-guidelines