the column | Holocaust lessons for generations past and futureby margo freistadt
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My daughter Kenny, working on her teacher’s credential, recently read a case study of teaching elementary school pupils about the Holocaust. The study followed a third-grade class taught by an experienced, trusted, creative teacher. It posed a series of questions: When should children learn about the Holocaust? How much do young kids really understand? Should Holocaust education stand on its own or be part of learning about other genocides and calamities? Is graphic information about horrific evil harmful to children of this age?
Kenny and her cohort studied the teacher’s three-week unit: his reading of age-appropriate books to the children, the questions he posed, students’ questions, assignments and students’ homework, parent reactions. The case study didn’t answer the many interlocking questions, it just raised issues for the aspiring teachers to ponder and discuss.
At about the same time, I was compiling a list of relatives who died in the Holocaust. Our rabbi had asked the congregation for names to read aloud at San Francisco’s community Yom HaShoah commemoration April 27. On my list:
• Leo, the brother of my maternal grandmother, whom I had heard my grandparents talk about. He had thought that his service in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I would save him, but he perished after being interned at Terezin.
• Anton, the brother of my maternal grandfather, who disappeared during a forced march from the Neuengamme camp at the end of the war. My grandfather always said he and his sister had harbored hopes for many years that Anton was still alive.
• Uncles and cousins of my paternal grandfather, Bruno, whom he never mentioned, though he had many opportunities to talk about them and I had many opportunities to ask. We just didn’t. I know their names only from our family tree and Yad Vashem testimony pages.
• The nephew and many other family members of my favorite great-aunt, Bella. I listed their names, even though she chose to focus her life-affirming energy on the members of her family who made it with her to Israel.
I gave Kenny a copy of my list, knowing that she would care deeply about it, both for her own knowledge and as part of her group’s discussion about Holocaust education.
But passing these names on to Kenny, I realized the list holds a different meaning for her than for me. Many American Jews of my generation, even those who didn’t know any death camp survivors, heard stories from people who lost sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts. The calamity is visceral for us. We’ve seen the pain in our parents’ eyes. We saw our grandparents drift away as they remembered their losses. Many of us have traveled to Eastern Europe on “roots” trips to experience the places we’ve heard about and to see what’s left.
My daughter is one more step removed. She knows her connection, through me and other sources, but the stories for her are just that — stories. I’ve told her what I know, but I was not a participant or a victim. I’m an American Jew, a relatively secure child of immigrants. I sought out older relatives to hear their stories, and I feel a personal connection to this part of our heritage.
But for my daughter, it’s history. And even the phrase “it’s history” is complicated — we say it as if it means something is not personal or real. But there’s clearly some crossover — part of telling our personal stories is to help the next generation own our history. Yet we also hope that our younger people can experience a different connection to the Holocaust, one that’s not so painful.
We make our lists and we light candles and we tell stories so this catastrophe will not be forgotten. We are the people chosen to carry this lesson and this warning for the world. This is part of my daughter’s heritage, but not her entire heritage.
And part of our job may be to help this next generation find their own way to carry this memory forward. Which almost brings us back to the original question, for my daughter, the future teacher: How and when do we teach the Holocaust and its lessons?