By Larisa Klebe
When I was in second grade I learned about the Holocaust in religious school – well, sort of. My teacher said that there was a bad man named Hitler who rose to power in Germany, and blamed the Jews for things like people not having jobs and food. Then he put the Jews in “prisons,” didn’t feed them very much, and tattooed numbers on their arms.
Looking back, I know my teacher had the best of intentions. She wanted to teach us about this important piece of history, but in a way that felt as age-appropriate as possible. My sense is that many teachers of young students feel compelled to teach Holocaust history because of its significance, and that this sense of urgency to impart critical knowledge can often outweigh concerns about age-appropriateness. I don’t doubt that many educators feel a sense of duty to teach this history – regardless of which age group they teach – and while that’s a feeling and viewpoint I understand and deeply respect, I feel strongly that we shouldn’t teach the Holocaust to young children.
It is extremely difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to effectively teach the Holocaust to elementary aged students. In an effort to respect developmental stage, the history loses its context, details, and nuance, and what’s left are a few surface-level, watered down ideas that don’t mean a whole lot. Though it may feel like the students are being taught about the Holocaust, the content doesn’t accurately represent the history. While the spiral approach is often employed in Jewish Education to teach about things like bible stories and holidays, I don’t believe that this approach makes sense when it comes to Holocaust education.
Context is key, and if students are too young to understand the Holocaust in its proper historical context, they’re too young to learn about it at all. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) explains: “Students in grades six and above demonstrate the ability to empathize with individual eyewitness accounts and to attempt to understand the complexities of Holocaust history, including the scope and scale of the events. While elementary-age students are able to empathize with individual accounts, they often have difficulty placing them in a larger historical context.” If our goal is for young students to understand Holocaust history, but they aren’t developmentally ready to place that history in its proper historical context, and are also too young to be exposed to the history in much detail, I question if this is a realistic goal.
In his article, “Complicating Issues in Holocaust Education,” (The Journal of Social Studies Research, Volume 34, Issue 1), David H. Lindquist says,
“Many teachers hold that the Shoah should be taught in the lower grades, arguing that teaching tolerance through Holocaust study is developmentally appropriate in that setting… [while others] counter that using Holocaust education for such purposes negates the historicity of the event while exposing young children to overwhelming experiences for which they cannot be intellectually or emotionally prepared.”
In addition to the idea that young children aren’t able to understand the Holocaust in context, educators also run the risk of exposing their young students to content that they’re not emotionally ready to handle.
Herein lies another problem. Besides the danger of distorting history by leaving out key context pieces, we also run the risk of exposing young students to inappropriately distressing material. In doing so, we might unintentionally chip away at their innocence. Lindquist’s article also says, “‘Teaching the most wrenching social history to the very young assaults their cozy, rosy view of the world. … They live only once, and for a very short time, in a tooth-fairy world. Why shorten that time further?’”
So the question isn’t necessarily, “Can we teach the Holocaust to young children?” but, “Should we?”
Returning to the idea of using Holocaust history to teach tolerance to young children: this speaks to a desire to make sure that our young students grow up to be good people, to be mensches. I understand and appreciate that, and from what I’ve seen, this is one of the main reasons why educators want to teach the Holocaust to young students. It is a noble goal, and one I truly admire.
But what if we flip this idea on its head? Instead of teaching the Holocaust to young students in an effort to teach them to be mensches, why don’t we teach them to be mensches first? If students enter middle school with an understanding of the importance of diversity, with respect for the other, with the ability to empathize, with a basic understanding of power and privilege (you get the idea) – the history of the Holocaust will be more likely to resonate on a personal level, and they’ll be better equipped to not only understand the history, but to see it as a call to fight for social justice.
Focusing on developing a classroom culture based on kindness and caring for one another, sharing children’s books with messages about celebrating differences, and teaching the tenets of our Jewish tradition that stress justice and equality, can all help teach young students to be mensches, without having to expose them to things for which they’re unprepared.
Larisa Klebe is the Associate Director of Programs and Education at the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA).