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An email from the family in charge of leading the discussion for the next fourth-grade book club landed in my inbox. It said the selection for this month’s meeting was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. An appropriate choice since we were about to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Some parents were hesitant to let their kids read about the Holocaust. I was not. My son Sammy already knew about the horrors of World War II. He had been introduced to this part of Jewish history when he was in Kindergarten at a Jewish Day School. At the time, I thought six was too young for the lesson, but it was taught whether parents approved or not. Even though Sammy knew about the Holocaust, I was glad the book was about heroes and survival, rather than labor camps and gas chambers.
Number the Stars tells the story of the evacuation of the Jews from Nazi-held Denmark during World War II. On September 29, 1943, word spread throughout the country that Jews were to be detained and then relocated to extermination camps. Within hours, the Danes including average citizens, resistance fighters, and police arranged boats to take 7,000 Jews to Sweden. Lowry fictionalizes this true-story and brings it to life through 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, whose family harbors her best friend, Ellen Rosen, on the eve of the round-up and smuggles Ellen’s family out of the country.
My son loved the story, as did the other kids. As the children eagerly talked about the book, the adult discussion leader asked them if they thought it was possible for a holocaust to happen again.
All the kids agreed that it was possible for a holocaust-like tragedy to happen if a “mad man” came to power, but all felt it was not probable. They said that the United States would never allow it. They believed that the President would protect Jews in the US from such evil and would ensure that our country came to the aid of others if it happened elsewhere in the world.
As the children spoke, the parents sitting on the outer edge of the circle exchanged glances and began to whisper. Should we tell them that the US didn’t help the Jews during the war? Should we make them aware of recent genocides and how little America did to stop them? We decided we should.
We told the kids that mass killings didn’t end with the Holocaust, they were still happening today. We told them that the response of America and her allies to these atrocities in countries such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, Myanmar and the Central African Republic was anemic. We said that rescuing the Jews targeted by Nazi Germany was not a priority for the US during World War II. We explained that the US government greatly restricted the number of Jews it allowed to immigrate here during the war and sent those fleeing the Nazis by ship back to Europe.
We didn’t want to scare the kids. But we also didn’t want them looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. We wanted them to understand that the actions of the Danish were truly heroic and that they exemplified the ideal of human decency. Under the leadership of King Christian X, they acted with courage and integrity to save almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark. Their heroism was mesmerizing.
After book club, I asked Sammy if the discussion changed how he felt about the US. He said no, it just highlighted the mistakes our government made and showed that it didn’t always act with a conscience. Then I asked him if it changed how he felt about being Jewish. He paused. After a moment, he said it did, but in a good way.
“It made me realize that as a Jew, I have a responsibility to act with decency, treat others kindly and with dignity, and not discriminate. As a Jew, I have a responsibility to be courageous.”
Over the next few weeks, we will be reminded of these responsibilities when we celebrate Purim and Passover. Hopefully, we will take the lessons to heart and when faced with a crisis act like Esther and Moses, Christian X and the Danes, the Johansens and Rosens. Hopefully, we will be courageous.
Yom HaShoah starts on Sunday night and ends on Monday at sundown.
I haven’t taught the kids about the Holocaust yet. Other than in the most general of terms – they know about WWII, and they know that Hitler and the Nazis were terrible, terrible people, and they did awful things to the Jews. They even know that a lot of Jewish people died during the war, and that’s part of why Jews are such a minority.
But the details… yeah, I can barely bring myself to think about them, how do I talk about them with my kids? And by kids, I’m talking mostly about my ten year old, Jessica. My six year old and three year old are still little enough so it’s not an issue.
I wonder how old I was when I read the Diary of Anne Frank. Junior high? I feel like I remember some sort of presentation down in the cafeteria. I’m guessing it was seventh or eighth grade.
Jessie and I were talking earlier on the way to her slumber party, and I told her that she was going to be going to the religious school class on it on Monday. She knows about the Holocaust, but really has no idea. She asked if it was as bad as 9/11. Worse, I said. It was much worse. Then she asked what they did all day in the concentration camps, and I really stumbled over my answer. I don’t even know exactly what I said… something about it being like a prison, and that it was horrible beyond words. I started to think about the pictures I’ve seen, and actually started to say that people starved, and then I stopped. Remembered that she’s only ten.
I don’t know that I’m old enough to really understand the Holocaust. Are you ever really? And if you aren’t – then when do I tell her? How do you tell your child what happened? This was her family. If we had been alive then, and living in Germany, it would have been us. That’s terrifying – and for a sensitive kid, for any kid, hell, for any adult, that’s … I don’t have words.
We’ll light the candle together on Sunday night, and we’ll talk a little about it. General terms, avoiding any graphic descriptions, and reassure her, and her brother and sister, that we live today in America, and that we’re safe. And we’ll tell her, and her brother and sister when they’re old enough, that they have a special obligation to remember, to make the world better, in whatever way they can. To make the world a place where the Holocaust never happens again.