This is an essay about what we have told our children about the Holocaust. I have tried to write several different versions of a post about the Holocaust and our experiences, thoughts and feelings as a half-Jewish family living in Germany for the year. I have not been able to strike what seems an appropriate balance between innumerable factors. So much has been written about the Holocaust and German history and culture, by people much more qualified than me, that I had given up trying to write a piece. But then my brother asked me to comment on a concern a friend of his had about her third grader learning about the Holocaust. “After a year in Germany with your kids, what do you think?” he asked. So I came back to the topic I know best, parenting my children and helping them learn about the world around them.
We are a non-practicing, half-Jewish family, like many other academics we know. We celebrate Hanukkah and Passover, mostly for the food and ritual. My latkes and matzoh balls are comfort-food extraordinaire, and there is no meal all year I look forward to more than a Passover Seder around a giant table filled with friends. It is I, the goy in the relationship, who keeps the Jewish traditions, however basic, going in our family—Jason is Jewish by heritage and atheist by practice, but is very resistant to religion and religious rituals. Mothers, I suppose, generally keep most traditions going, sustaining the past and molding the future to create a family thread for generations to come.
But despite my efforts to continue family recipes and stories, we are not a Jewish family, nor are we Christian, although I was raised Presbyterian. We are still figuring it all out. But, culturally, the children are half-Jewish, and they know this. So, when we were preparing to live in Germany for a year, where not so long ago families like ours would have been at best driven into hiding and at worst torn apart and murdered, we weren’t sure what we should tell the kids about this horrific chapter in German history.
I talked to lots of people to gather opinions—teachers, Jewish friends, German friends, family members, anyone whose opinion I thought might be valuable. I received a mix of advice, but the consistent theme was that my Jewish friends thought my children were too young to know about the Holocaust, even Greta at age ten, and my German friends thought that especially Greta, at age ten, should know about the Holocaust.
When I was in sixth grade I read “The Diary of Anne Frank” with my first Jewish teacher, Mrs. Shapiro. Mrs. Shapiro with her shiny curls, broad smile and sharp wit was a beacon for me during a difficult year, and reading Anne’s diary with Mrs. Shapiro was incredible. I was both terrified and excited. Terrified to discover Anne’s tragic story and the horrors of the Holocaust, but excited to be reading the words of an intelligent girl who loved to write and read to help her deal with an impossibly difficult situation.
I had thought that perhaps Greta could learn about the Holocaust in the same way I did, through Anne’s words. But I learned that “The Diary of Anne Frank” is now not recommended for children until at least eighth grade, and my Jewish friends and children’s teachers could recommend no appropriate books for younger children. But, I also knew, from talking to my German friends, that fifth graders in Germany would know about the Holocaust, and Jason and I didn’t want Greta hearing about it for the first time in her German school or from deciphering messages on Holocaust memorials in Germany, especially as she was still learning the language and culture.
So Jason and I told Greta about the Holocaust a few months before we left for Germany. We didn’t go into great detail, but we told her that before and during World War II, the Germans rounded up and killed millions of Jewish people and others who were not deemed human in Nazi eyes. We told her briefly about the concentration camps, and that the victims included the very old and the very young. But we didn’t want her to be scared to go to Germany, so we also emphasized that it was a long time ago, that Germans were not like that anymore, and that she would be safe in Germany.
Of course she was scared, as everyone should be terrified by the knowledge of the Holocaust. But incredibly, she understood the idea that things can change and now she would be safe in Germany. But she was frustrated and sad by the weight of this new knowledge, by the understanding of just how horrific the world can be. She cried and got angry and did a lot of thinking, and she told us that she needed to do something good, something to make the world better to help counteract the fact that she now knew about one of the most horrible events in human history.
She wanted to do something aimed at children that would help them do good things for the world. So, she worked with Jason and some of his students and a group of her friends to make this video, which teaches kids about climate change and what they can do to prevent it from getting worse. The video has nothing to do with the Holocaust, but it was a project that she could help accomplish, that would work on a problem that is important to many people she knows, and that would engage her friends and other kids like them.[vimeo https://vimeo.com/23654746]
I was impressed and proud that Greta used the anger and frustration and sadness she felt after learning about the Holocaust to jumpstart and complete a project that was fun and proactive, and something that speaks to tangible things people can actually do every day to make the world a better place. She took something incomprehensible and transformed it into something concrete and doable – an important lesson to learn.
And beyond this lesson, we made the right decision to tell Greta about the Holocaust. In fact, kids her age here do know about the Holocaust. I’m not sure exactly when or how most kids learn about it here, but it’s not hidden from their young eyes and ears. Greta’s history teacher here mentioned the Holocaust early in the year when he gave an overview of what they would be covering over the next couple years, and in her school yard is a memorial to the Jewish teachers and students from the Felix-Klein-Gymnasium who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Two of my closest German friends have suggested that Jason and I take Greta to visit a concentration camp so that she can learn more first-hand about the Holocaust. In fact, Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died, is not too far from Göttingen. But neither Jason nor I could bring ourselves to undertake the weight of such a visit, or to deal with the emotional upheaval it would cause for us, let alone for Greta. Perhaps as she gets older, reads more, and processes more of the good and evil in the world, we can take such a trip. For now, our mother-daughter excursion was to visit the wonders of the North Sea and its unique coast, where we sank our toes in mud and reveled in the beauty of Germany, rather than its horrors.
We did not choose to tell Anya and Walter about the Holocaust before we came to Germany, thinking that it was an unlikely and inappropriate topic for second grade or Kindergarten. But we have also not shied away from the topic of World War II when it’s come up, as it has many times. The kids have learned that nearly every German city was heavily bombed during WWII, hearing first from friends about the devastation in nearby Kassel that was nearly completely destroyed, killing tens of thousands of people in a single night. They have also seen the pre- and post-War models of Hannover, to our north, that show how that city was nearly completely destroyed as well.
During our trip to Berlin, they learned about the burned Reichstag, bombed buildings, bunkers protecting invaluable ancient art, bullet holes in statues, and of course the Wall that the split city during the Cold War. Walter, who has become keenly interested in architecture this year, continually speculates about whether churches were bombed during the War and how domes and steeples could have been rebuilt. Dramatic stories of destroyed cities have become, for Walter, part of the story of Germany that fascinates him the most. And he knows that many of the bombs were dropped on Germany by the United States, but that is not as relevant to him as whether the bricks and mortar are original or reconstructed.
For Anya, who cares more about procuring the appropriate ingredients for a family meal or celebration than she does about the construction of a church, realized that it was difficult for me to find a Menorah and appropriate candles for Hanukkah, or matzoh and matzoh meal for Passover. When she inquired, I told her that it’s because there are no longer many Jewish people in Germany that most of them left or were killed during the War. We ended up using wine bottles and Christmas tree candles for a Menorah, and importing our matzoh from Paris during a pre-Passover trip there. But the fact that there are no longer many Jews in Germany left Anya wondering.
We have seen memorials to the victims of the Holocaust in Germany, most dramatically, the vast acreage of concrete and metal cubes in Berlin that the kids ran through, playing a quick game of hide-and-seek on a bitter cold January day. And we saw the cattle cars that were included in the exhibit of German railroad history in the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin. Walter, thankfully more interested in the cool modern trains that came next, did not stop to look at these wagons, but I stood inside one and cried.
And in Berlin, we also learned about Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, small plaques placed in the sidewalks outside locations where Jewish people were abducted and then taken to their deaths in concentration camps. Jewish friends of ours, living in Berlin for the year, have stumbled over many of these plaques during their time there. The first such stone was installed in Göttingen just last month, but thousands can be found all over Europe.
And each time we see or learn about such reminders of the Holocaust, Jason or I tell Greta a little bit more about what happened. And she seems ready to learn more, in small doses. And she, like me, tries to piece together how such a thing could have happened in this country we have all grown so fond of. I don’t think Greta has talked to friends here about the Holocaust or the War; the topic is simply too immense for children her age to chat about. Even I have had precious few conversations about it. The three most in depth conversations I’ve had about it have elicited a friend’s anger at her country’s cruelty, another friend’s tears for the victims and the devastating ripple effects three generations later, and the gift of an incredible memoir of a Holocaust survivor – “The Seventh Well” by Fred Wander.
Jason has talked about it quite a bit with the colleagues from the University and other visiting fellows, but such conversations have been more focused on historical details than emotional impact—how Göttingen saw far fewer Jews murdered as most Jewish professors were fired in the early 1930s and left the country; how Jews were treated differently in Denmark despite their cooperation with the Nazis; how Germans only began to talk openly about the Nazi era in the 1970s; and how long it took for German academia to recover after the war. In fact, arguably, the recovery is still taking place, with programs like Jason’s fellowship as part of that process.
Greta knows that information about the Holocaust should not be carelessly shared with her younger siblings. But last week, as the kids and I were wandering around town, we finally happened upon the memorial that has been erected in Göttingen for the victims of the Holocaust, on the site where the synagogue once stood before it was burned down during Kristallnacht. I knew the memorial was there, but hadn’t been to see it yet. Greta and Jason had seen it, but not Walter or Anya.
The memorial rises up out of what might have been the foundation of the temple, with metal criss-crossing triangles forming a spiral steeple. When one looks up through the spires from the ground, a Star of David can be seen. Around the inside walls of the foundation are the names of all the Jewish Göttingers who were killed in the Holocaust. I find the memorial beautiful and effective, and of course sad. Also sad is the fact that in the official Göttingen literature about sites and history that are given out at tourist locations throughout the City, the memorial is not listed as a site to visit. I think most people don’t even know it’s there.
But our family visited the memorial, and the kids and I talked about why it’s there. We read the names and found Walters and Ruths and last names that are the same as family members and friends. I told Anya and Walter that the names were of Jewish people from Göttingen who were killed in World War II, and that this was the site of their synagogue, before it was burned down.
Walter asked if the people died because the temple was bombed and they were inside: “Mama, did a bomb hit the synagogue when they were having a service?” I told him no, that the people were forced to leave their homes and move to horrible camps, and that in these camps they were killed. “Who killed them?” he asked. I told him they were killed by other Germans who were called Nazis. “Why?” asked Anya. “Because they were Jewish,” responded Greta. Anya then asked, “Is that why there aren’t very many Jewish people in Germany now?” Both Greta and I said together, “Yes, Anya, that is why.”
The kids then quietly studied the shadows created by the metal angles on a sunny morning. I snapped some pictures of them, reminiscent of photos my mother took of my siblings and me when we were children, visiting the graves of great-grandparents on Memorial Day. We moved on, walking along the medieval wall that still surrounds much of Göttingen. We didn’t talk more about the memorial, or the War, or the many Jewish people from Göttingen who were killed. We enjoyed our afternoon together in our beautiful adopted city.
So now all of my children have heard about the Holocaust, as they should, after living in Germany for a year. The enormity of it certainly still escapes them, even Greta, who understands the most. I think Walter just took the information in as historical fact, like a city that was bombed and then rebuilt. The implications of such things don’t occur to him yet, which is as it should be for a six-year-old. Anya is pondering, I can tell, as she processes the absence of Jewish people here. And Greta, I’m not sure. She always wants to think the best of people, so perhaps in her own diary, she is figuring out a way to reconcile the present with the past. Trying to figure out how a half-Jewish girl like her can love present-day Germany despite its horrific past.
Our children all understand the Holocaust at a level and in a context that is appropriate for their ages and our circumstances. As parents, Jason and I rarely shy away from difficult topics like death and war and oppression. We always try to be honest with our kids about the world they live in, and then to help them understand the complexities surrounding a situation. There are very few topics as difficult as the Holocaust, but that makes it even more important to discuss honestly, so that we and our children can do our part to make sure it never happens again.
More images of the memorials, below: