I didn’t plan to launch into a discussion about Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Last month I read an article about the actress who plays the role of Liesel Meminger, Sophie Nelisse. Her performance in the film belies her age (13 years). According to our local newspaper, Nelisse turned down some serious gymnastics dreams in order to pursue this part. My daughters saw that I was engrossed in something and asked me what I was reading. So I told them about Nelisse, and explained that the book was so good I couldn’t wait to see the movie.
I was too impatient to put off seeing The Book Thief any longer, so I suggested they play in the basement for awhile. When they asked why, I told them there might be some scary parts. When they asked what those scary parts would be, I suddenly found myself in unfamiliar territory.
I knew I should keep it simple. I mentioned a mean man named Adolf Hitler. They remembered hearing a bit about him from one of their favorite movies, The Sound of Music. I told them Hitler didn’t like Jewish people and he wanted to separate them from everyone else. Apparently that fact alone wasn’t intimidating enough; I gently told them that he managed to kill many Jews during World War II. I didn’t talk about Auschwitz, Dachau or Bergen-Belsen. I didn’t tell them about the tattoos, the gas chambers, the labor camps or starvation. I didn’t tell them about the six million. But I did tell them about Sophie Nelisse’s character, Liesel, and how her family hides a Jewish man, Max, in their home during the war. Their hearts warmed and grew lighter upon hearing that non-Jews were willing to put their own lives in danger in order to do the right thing and help others. These are the lessons I want to teach my daughters.
I don’t believe in hiding everything from my kids, and I don’t like lying or sugar-coating reality. They’re old enough to know and understand plenty of things; and while they don’t need to hear the gritty, gory details, I’m doing them any favors by shielding them from something like this. They’re mature enough to handle the basics. After all, the Westboro Baptist Church is very much alive in Kansas City, and, well…history is doomed to repeat itself unless we educate our youth. They need to know that the world isn’t always such a pretty place. They need to know that even in 2014, people don’t respect differences.
My mother-in-law found an age-appropriate book for them, but it’s long and they’ve already peeked inside and decided they aren’t ready for it. And so we’ll wait until they bring it up again.
My friend Holly Rosen Fink interviewed Nelisse and Emily Watson, who plays her adopted mother, Rosa, in the film. Watson says something profound and critically important:
“And that’s why you have to keep making films like this– because there’s a whole generation of kids who think that Adolph Hitler is a football coach.”
And that’s just it. My kids may not be learning about the Holocaust in school yet, but eventually they will. In the meantime, conversations can and should start in the home when children are ready. This is only the first of several such discussions we’ll have with our daughters.
Have you talked about the Holocaust with your kids? Have you brought up other difficult topics? I’d love to hear what you said and how it went!