student voices

The importance of mental health considerations in Holocaust education

This article is part of a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS:  Student Voices: Perspectives on Critical Issues in Jewish Education

A rabbi I know asked a Holocaust survivor what message she would give to the next generation. The woman responded, “It’s almost too painful to remember, and yet we know that we must.” This is the credo that many Jewish institutions and educators follow when designing curricula. Children can handle difficult topics, but sometimes we unwittingly pass harmful aspects of our people’s trauma. While sadness and anger are normal, sometimes children and teenagers experience persistent mental health symptoms. By exercising awareness during Shoah (Holocaust) education, we can not only protect our students’ wellbeing, but also teach vital social-emotional coping mechanisms.  

Age Appropriateness and Graphic Content  

Assessing whether material about the Shoah is developmentally appropriate is the first step in promoting the wellbeing of learners. Books and films often have ratings or recommended audiences listed. Many children’s books and poems preserve the emotional weight of Shoah tragedies without disturbing images or passages that can scar young children. Young adolescents and teenagers can start to interact with historical context, socio-political matters, and philosophical issues like the banality of evil and theodicy.     

While documentaries do a great job of condensing information, they also carry downsides. Viewers are often inundated with graphic images. Rebecca Friedman-Charry, Judaics teacher and Holocaust Remembrance Day coordinator at the Schechter School of Long Island, suggests exercising caution: “We’re very careful about the images we expose them to.” 

Friedman-Charry stresses the importance of consent in engaging with intense material. “A student who is selecting to learn is ready to learn more detail and to cope with the difficult facts,” she says. It’s also essential to provide an outlet for any emotions that come up, even if it is just debriefing for a moment with the person next to them, jotting down a poem, or drawing a picture. Promoting respect for all reactions is key. Educators may want to offer a way to opt out of particularly graphic films. 

Hold Space for Difficult Emotions and Desensitization

Because Holocaust studies is a historical and political discipline, it is easy to over-intellectualize lessons. Information about Nazi propaganda, concentration camps, and the like all carry emotional weight and spark spiritual questions. I remember the strange experience of diving into the Shoah up until the bell rang . . . and then heading straight to P.E. Transitions and opportunities for self-expression are essential for processing this heavy content. Journaling, writing a “letter” to a victim, and saying Kaddish can be meaningful ways to end a class session; discussion groups led by a guidance counselor or rabbi offer a chance for students to share some of their inherited burden. 

Furthermore, students may find creating an end-of-unit memorial service or teaching younger students meaningful. Devoting real time—even if it means skipping content—to these strategies ensures we support learners and model valuable coping skills that extend into other facets of life. 

Some educators may dedicate a longer period of learning to Holocaust material than other units. Friedman-Charry does not think this is necessary in a context where students will encounter the Holocaust multiple times over the course of their academic careers. “[Our Holocaust units are] no longer than other units. The teacher doesn’t have to convince [the students] it’s more important because they know it’s more important,” she says. Over the course of a unit, learners may start to feel desensitized to images or stories about the Shoah, which can trigger guilt or shame. Help them understand they are not bad people; this is a normal protective measure the brain takes when internalizing difficult information over a long period of time.  

Don’t Invalidate Sadness with Hope

Too often I hear, “The Shoah was a tragedy but out of the ashes, Israel was born!” Although the Holocaust played a major role in showing a need for the establishment of the State of Israel, this sentiment is unhelpful for two reasons: 1) It cheapens the deaths of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis. The Shoah was a tragedy. Full stop. 2) It shuts down any opportunity to express sadness. Helping students find solace feels most genuine if we first show respect for students’ full range of emotions. 

Know When Extra Support Is Necessary

It is critical to keep in mind that students may have vulnerabilities for mental health issues. Studying the Holocaust is upsetting, but students with these vulnerabilities may experience a greater emotional toll, including the triggering or exacerbation of symptoms. Others may notice dark thoughts that they struggle to fit into their worldview. Kids may try to communicate this to a trusted teacher, administrator, rabbi, or parent in a variety of ways. We must be sensitive to the underlying message of what students are saying and doing. 

Friedman-Charry shares an example: During a survivor speaker, she noticed that a student had stopped taking notes. “I said, ‘You stopped taking notes at one point. What were you feeling?’ He actually couldn’t do the academic task because his emotional response was too strong,” recalls Friedman-Charry. She was able to support the student, normalizing how emotions impact one’s ability to focus. Educators can also support students with activities like journaling or discussion groups. These not only allow students to debrief, but also give educators chances to identify which students may benefit from speaking with a counselor for emotional intervention, or a rabbi to discuss spiritual concerns. Even if a child declines a referral, they will appreciate the acknowledgement and feel supported by their educators.    

Kayley Romick is a Jewish educator living in New York. She is currently pursuing rabbinical ordination and a master’s degree in Jewish Educational Leadership at The Jewish Theological Seminary.