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No matter how many times I see the above photograph — and it is perhaps the most widely published and iconic picture from the Holocaust — I still freeze with revulsion, sadness and outrage.
As a parent, educator and just plain-old human being, it bothers me to see children in such a vulnerable, helpless, victimized state…. maybe even more so than seeing the most horrific scenes from the deathcamps.
The debate over what age to introduce children to the Holocaust continues on, but there is no debate why we need to teach the next generation what happened and how to fight the evils of prejudice in our own communities.
Without Holocaust education, we will get more buffoons like Jesse James, who was recently unmasked as a fan of Nazi-themed “humor.” Although I’m jaded about our celebrity-obsessed culture, this news came as a personal disappointment. Watching James for a full-season of The Celebrity Apprentice, I always considered him to be a mensch.
What’s really sad is that his lawyer just came out with the “Some of My Best Friends Are Jewish” defense and bragged about how James lived on an Israeli kibbutz for a month.
James obviously knew what he was doing when he posed with the Nazi salute and war memorabilia. And even though he never meant for the photo to be public, his disrespectful stunt will forever taint his reputation. But it will also make some people laugh.
Education does not guarantee sensitivity and empathy. It cannot override poor character.
Nonetheless, we should try to do everything we can to reach out to the rest of humanity — and use history to encourage respect and understanding in our own backyard.
If you live in New Hampshire or in the Merrimack Valley area (Mass.), there are two Yom Hashoah events I encourage you to explore:
Vermont’s Betty Lauer, author of “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Incredible True Story of a German-Jewish Teenager’s Struggle to Survive in Nazi-Occupied Poland,” will share her life story.
Bertel Weissberger (now Betty Lauer) was 12 in April 1938 when her sister Eva and her mother were expelled from Germany to Poland. Initially, they lived as registered Jews, with special curfews, work assignments and food rations. The Nazis caught Eva, but Bertel and her mother survived under assumed names and forged documents. Fleeing a series of near-discoveries, Bertel and her mother ended up in Warsaw, where they fought in the 1943 uprising and were deported to an internment camp, along with Bertel’s Polish Christian “husband.” They bribed their way out of the camp to take various work assignments, navigated the Russian occupation of Poland, walked to Auschwitz to look for Eva and stowed away on a ship from Poland to Sweden, and then finally sailed to America.
The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call Sheryl Rich-Kern at 603-881-7264.
Click here for directions to Rivier College.
BLOODLINES DOCUMENTARY SCREENING & FORGIVENESS FORUM DISCUSSION — April 13, 7 p.m., Jewish Federation Building, Manchester, NH.
The New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival will host a free screening of “Bloodlines,” followed by a group discussion on “Is Forgiveness Possible?”
“Bloodlines” follows the evolving relationship between two women, one the descendant of a top Nazi war criminal and the other the descendant of Holocaust victims.
“Bettina Goering, grandniece of Herman Goering, has long tried to bury the dark legacy of her family history. Painter Ruth Rich, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, cannot resolve her deep-rooted anger over the suffering of her parents and the loss of an older brother in the Holocaust. Bettina seeks out Ruth in an attempt to confront her enormous guilt and her fear that the capacity for evil is in her blood. When the women meet, their hidden guilt and rage clash in a series of intimate and extraordinary meetings.”
The forum discussion will feature a talk by theologian Martin Rumscheidt, whose father was an executive at I.G. Farben, the German company that invented Zyklon B for the Nazi gas chambers.
For directions to the Jewish Federation Building, click here.
(I recently stumbled across this 11-year-old essay that my husband, Darren, wrote about the inevitable clash between recreation and mourning whenever Holocaust memorials are located in city centers or tourist areas. As we observe Yom HaShoah this month, the themes visited below still strongly resonate here — and are applicable to any public memorial site.)
The Holocaust Picnic — By Darren Garnick
(Originally published in The Boston Jewish Advocate, April 1999)
While concentration camp survivors recently marched to the New England Holocaust Memorial, they interrupted a birthday picnic.
The dozen or so little girls camped out on a blanket must have been surprised to see a parade trudge by them, some of the visitors wearing yellow stickers saying “JUDE.” No doubt, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Gov. Paul Cellucci were not recognized by the party – just two more serious grown-ups walking toward the glass towers looking really, really sad.
The young mother in charge of the girls had staked out a prime piece of real estate. Nice grass. A wall of finely pruned shrubbery to give the kids some boundaries. It’s the perfect place to blow out the candles, sing “Happy Birthday,” and open presents.
And that’s what they did. Overwhelmed by the mass of people, the girls stopped screaming and playing tag moments before the Mourner’s Kaddish. They meant no disrespect. At six or seven years old, they’re at the lucky age when Nazis and genocide and torture don’t exist.
The mother, too, meant no harm. She’s just oblivious. To her, this was “Holocaust Park,” just an alternative picnicking option to Boston Common or the Arboretum. But “oblivious” wasn’t the adjective that immediately popped in my head. I was thinking: “How can this woman be so stupid?”
Then my brain shifted to Eastern Europe. Last summer, my wife Stacy and I traveled to my grandmother’s ancestral hometown of Bialystock, Poland. We were visiting the memorial to the Bialystock Ghetto Uprising, a modest sculpture on the site of several mass graves. The ghetto is now a park. The graves themselves are fenced off, but it is a place where Poles walk their dogs and lounge on benches.
Some boys were kicking around a soccer ball, which strayed away and landed at my feet. They smiled at me. I smiled at them and kicked the ball back. I remember appreciating the moment as a fun cross-cultural exchange, the same amusement I might get from “participating” in a game in a village in Mexico or Thailand. For a few seconds, I forgot where I was.
If, at the scene of the Holocaust, I had trouble focusing on what happened there, why should I be surprised that a woman in Boston is not making a connection? McDonald’s is across the street. The jugglers and magicians at Faneuil Hall are a few steps away. The benefits of having a Holocaust memorial in a heavily traveled tourist spot are obvious: People who never think about genocide are encouraged to confront humanity’s evil. Perhaps that is worth stomaching a few insensitively placed shopping bags or reckless skateboarders.
To the woman who planned her daughter’s birthday party at the Holocaust memorial, the meaning of Auschwitz is not obvious. The meaning of Nuremberg is not obvious. She needs to be either reminded or informed for the first time before she enters the park. So do a lot of us.
It would be helpful if signs were posted on both sides of the memorial outlining expected public behavior: “The 11 million victims of the Nazi genocide were denied a proper burial. You are standing in their cemetery. Please act accordingly. Please respect their memory by not smoking, eating, drinking, running or cycling on memorial grounds. Thank you for your cooperation.”
We cannot force respect at the New England Holocaust Memorial.
But we should at least be demanding it.
After discovering this outrageously inappropriate Anne Frank dot-to-dot puzzle and a full kids’ activity page of Holocaust word searches and games, I sent the link to a few respected educational institutions for their perspective.
As I mentioned in my post, “Holocaust Education is NOT Supposed to Be Fun,” if you have to make Holocaust lessons entertaining for children, maybe they just aren’t ready to handle the subject.
So what age is the best age to start teaching the Shoah? A couple of experts weigh in below:
ANTONY POLONSKY, Professor of Holocaust Studies, Brandeis University:
“I am not in favour of this material being given to primary school children, so I think it should probably be in secondary school. The general context is also necessary. I have found Americans (not only children) woefully ignorant of the elementary facts of European history.”
“At Brandeis, a student said to me after a lecture, ‘You were talking about the Second World War; when was the First World War?'”
NELLY SILAGY BENEDEK, Director of Education, The Jewish Museum (New York):
“From my experience, the best age to introduce students to the topic of the Holocaust is in high school. Even then, I wouldn’t expose them to the most graphic images. The Holocaust is a topic for mature audiences, and teachers should tread cautiously.”
“On the other hand, it is important for the Holocaust to be part of a study of 20th century world history. There are ways of talking about World War II to elementary and middle school students without speaking about the particulars of the Holocaust and emphasizing its graphic and disturbing events. For example, fifth grade students might learn about the how Jews were forced to flee Europe and about immigration to the United States during that time. They can learn about the challenges and hardships Jews faced as immigrants.”
YAEL WEINSTOCK, International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem (Israel):
“These are fascinating images that you bring to your blog. While I cannot speak from a personal perspective, as I represent Yad Vashem, I appreciate your engaging with such materials and questioning their use in the classroom and with young children.”
“As for educational suggestions, I can share with you the very well thought-out approach that Yad Vashem takes. We feel that outside of Israel (where the Holocaust is present starting at a very young age just by growing up in a Jewish country), children should not begin learning about the Holocaust until about 3rd or 4th grade.”
“Yad Vashem has published three books that are brilliantly written to introduce the topic of the Holocaust without difficult photographs or too much information at once. The first is called “I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly” and tells the personal story of a Holocaust survivor, but in a way that a child could understand. We do not believe in lying or making up parts of the story. Tell the truth, but perhaps not the entire truth when the child is young. It is a spiralic approach, so that with each year, a student is introduced to more and more about the subject.”
MICHAL STERNIN, International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem (Israel):
“First of all, I would like to express my appreciation to your dedication to the subject of Holocaust education. Thank you for drawing our attention to the children’s activities.”
“The most important thing to understand is that learning about the Holocaust should take place in a frame of an educational process. The educators should be constantly focused on the value of the activity they construct for the children and ask themselves what exactly is being achieved by performing each and every task they give.”
“The materials presented to children should be appropriate to their mental and cognitive skills. We think that the subject can be taught to younger children, and in our site, you can find ideas of how to do that.”
Here are some links to lesson plans:
“Until Then, I Had Only Read About These Things in Books” (Grades 5-6)
“I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly” (Grades 3-5)
“Thanks again for approaching us, we would be happy to continue the dialogue with you.”
Nothing surprises me anymore. I recently stumbled across this Anne Frank dot-to-dot on my local newspaper’s education page. Aside from the fact that it is a ludicrously designed dot-to-dot — I mean, why not just draw more of her face and body and leave nothing to connect — this is not the best way to introduce the Holocaust to children.
I have no doubt that the Universal Press Syndicate’s Mini Page has the best of intentions to share Anne’s life story. However, to toss it in the mix with peanut butter pudding recipes, word searches and other activity book games and puzzles only trivializes the tragedy.
Perhaps the most outrageous part of this “Fun Page,” is the Holocaust Word Search. Hey kids, can you find the phrases FINAL SOLUTION, GENOCIDE and DEATHCAMP? Are you kidding me?
Holocaust education is not supposed to be fun. If you have to placate kids with coloring books and puzzles, they are probably too young to learn about it in the first place.
What do you think? When and how should kids first be introduced to the Shoah? And are dot-to-dots and word searches offensive in this context or am I the one who is off-base here?