Teaching the Holocaust

This history lesson stirs controversy in many educational settings.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Family and Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today’s Parents and Children, published by Golden Books.

Few topics spark greater debate and controversy than when and how to introduce the Holocaust curriculum in school. In Hebrew schools across the country, debate rages over the right time to begin instruction. Jewish day schools wonder about including the youngest children in school-wide Holocaust Memorial Day observances. In the public schools, civic-minded parents fight to have the topic included as a standard part of the high school 20th-century history curriculum, while others argue that it does not belong.

Terezin concentration camp

Why does this topic stir up so much emotion? Michael Platt, principal of Salisbury High School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, believes that parents are generally uncomfortable talking about difficult issues with their children. “To make a rather unusual analogy, talking with your kids about the Holocaust is a little like talking with your kids about human sexuality. Most parents would prefer that the schools take care of it.”

Platt says that parents want to remain an all-knowing force in their children’s lives. “When the kids ask questions for which there are no answers, like ‘Why did God let the Holocaust happen?’ parents may feel that they are diminished in their children’s eyes. That is not the case, but it is a presumption on the part of many parents.”

Another factor may be the desire to protect our children. As Jewish parents who are well entrenched in American life, we have worked hard to create an idyllic world for our children. Most are third- or fourth-generation Americans, far removed from the traumas of the immigrant experience. They lead privileged lives, knowing that their path will probably take them to college and on to graduate school or into business. They can achieve whatever they want in an environment that is largely without overt prejudice.

We are the ones who have worked to establish this world for our children. And we constantly try to ensure that nothing will puncture the safety of that world. Can it be that we are afraid of introducing the Holocaust into that picture-perfect world? Will telling our children that six million Jews died terrible deaths while the world stood by shatter the world we worked so hard to create?

Concentration Camp

Lesley Weiss, the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, spends her days teaching about the Holocaust. She is also the mother of two children. “My choice of career was very much dictated by my exposure to the Holocaust. My mother spoke to me about her experiences from the time I was very young.” She sees groups of children of all ages, all the time, and speaks about the results of injustice and intolerance. And yet she has not discussed the Holocaust in detail with her older son, ten-year-old Adam. “Adam sees his grandmother every day. He knows that something bad happened to her when she was young. But I haven’t told him the whole story. I am really struggling with when and how to tell him.”

Ms. Weiss sees the contradiction in her own life. She makes a distinction between teaching other people’s children and her own. “I’m certainly not uncomfortable with the subject matter, but teaching other people’s kids is different from teaching your own.” Although she herself was not spared the details of the Holocaust as a child, she worries for her own children. “I guess I just want to protect them as long as I can.”

“Protecting our children” is a watchword of our lives. We live in the suburbs where there are “good” school districts. We make sure that our children will not be penalized for missing school on the Jewish holidays. We bring our little ones to story hour at the library, and we read all the parenting books. We are room parents, scoutmasters, and PTA presidents, to ensure that we are involved in our children’s lives. But when we finally begin to talk about this horrible chapter of our recent collective history, we are acknowledging that we can no longer completely shield them from the evils of the wider world outside.

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