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Yom HaShoa 2014: How to talk to kids about the Holocaust

My 4th grader has decided he's going to read the entire encyclopedia from A to Z, in order, and then quiz himself on it. (I can't really blame him, I did the same at his age - sans the quizzing; I think I just assumed I would remember everything.)

A few years earlier, he was leafing randomly through the encyclopedia for fun (yes, that is what passes for fun at our house - see above), when he came upon a photo of the burning World Trade Center. He read the caption, then wanted me to elaborate further. It's a tricky thing, explaining terrorism to a child who has the cognitive ability to comprehend every word, without the emotional ability to process it.

But, I'm glad I had the practice.

Sunday, April 27, 2014 is Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Another topic that, of course, kids should know about. The question for most parents is when, how, and especially what do you do with kids who think they're ready for more information than they actually are? (When it comes to many above-level books, for instance, I am often telling my three, "Just because you can read and define the words you are reading doesn't mean you truly understand what they mean.")

Two years ago, in article for, I wrote:

My husband and I realized that maybe it was finally time to have The Talk.

Not The Birds and Bees Talk. At our house, all three kids hear more than enough about human biology, and in such boring, scientific terms, too! No, at our house, the Talk is The Holocaust Talk. Soon to be followed by The Slavery and Jim Crow Talk, and then the Life Under Stalin (Especially for Jews) Talk.

The thing is though, the Holocaust (and slavery and Stalin…), they're not exactly topics you can casually drop into conversation, i.e. “I'll pick you up from school at 3, we’ll go to ballet class and six million Jews were killed during World War II.”

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For kids who like to get all their information out of books, something fictional and age appropriate can be a good place to start.

But, as I found out with Lois Lowry's "Number the Stars," sometimes a book can be too gentle of an introduction.

Once again for, I wrote:

To say that, in my opinion, “Number the Stars” doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust would be understating it. By focusing on an outlying country and circumstances, it almost does more harm than good. It makes you think the Holocaust was, at worst, an inconvenience. People had to leave their homes for a while (as if it’s being fumigated). But families stayed together, their friends remained loyal, and then everybody came back, safe and sound. No harm done, really. In fact, smuggling them out was a glorious adventure!

After he finished reading the book, I talked to my son about what really happened to the majority of Europe’s Jews. How they weren't sheltered by their neighbors, but actually turned in by them (yes, I know there are stories that say otherwise; the reason they are so extraordinary is because they were the exceptions to the rule). How their homes were robbed and taken over and how the few survivors who made it back were frequently not allowed to reclaim them. How the Jews weren't just relocated to another city or country; they were murdered by the millions. We talked about yellow stars and shops being burned and people beaten to death in the streets. We talked about the existing European anti-Semitism that allowed it to happen and about how it hardly ended at the conclusion of the war, either.

These things are very upsetting.

These things should be very upsetting.

And I believe in getting to them sooner rather than later, so that the facts aren't some monumental shock dropped on a child without warning, but simply a part of who you are from the beginning.

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Plenty of people disagreed with me, of course. (Would it be the internet if they didn't?)

What do you think? Is there a right way to talk to kids about the Holocaust - or anything upsetting, for that matter? What do you do?

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