Talking to Kids About the Holocaust.

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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!

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  • http://www.jenniferpwilliams.com/ Jennifer P. Williams

    I haven’t had THIS conversation, but we do talk about things that are like this, the civil rights movement for example. I want them to know that bad things happen, and that good people are the ones that make them stop. They need to know WHY and HOW to be the good people.

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Jennifer,

      Yep, that’s exactly what we need to emphasize– that bad things happen, but we can help stop them!! Thank you so much for reading and sharing this!

  • Mindy

    We were talking books at the dinner table the other night and Anne Frank came up. This was around the time when Ella’s school had been discussing civil rights and Martin Luther King. We didn’t go into any gory details,but we did outline who Hitler was and a bit of Anne’s story. We talked with our daughter about the importance of knowing history. When she hears these stories, she gets this look of passion and declares that she would stand up and fight oppression. O know it’s easier said than done, but we try to bring it back to her everyday and relate it to how she treats and looks out for people.

  • LaMarcellina

    I learned early, maybe by chance. One of my older sibling had a copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank” which I read when I was around 12. But more effectively, I used to watch that old tv documentary series, “The World at War”, when it came on in the late afternoons before the news and dinner. Seeing the parts dealing with the Holocaust — the bodies being bulldozed into graves after liberation — stunned me and sugarcoated nothing. My parents were unable to tell me much. I don’t think I suffered from this, though. It gave me a head start on seeing what had really happened.

  • http://www.about100percent.com/ Andrea

    My kids know about Anne Frank and the Holocaust, but I’m not sure about the level of detail they’ll learn about it at school. I remember waiting my entire tenth grade year to learn about the Holocaust, and when the World War II unit came at the end of the year, I was amazed that it was left out of our curriculum. This is a horrific part of our history that happened and should be taught for all the reasons you stated.

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Thank you, Andrea. It’s a lot to process at any age. I’m not looking forward to the more involved discussions we’re going to have.

  • http://auerfreelance.com/ Kerstin Auer

    Yes, I have had this conversation with my kids and growing up in Germany, I learned about it at a very early age as well. I grew up just outside of Nuremberg, which was supposed to be the “capital” of the world empire and there are many remnants of Nazi Germany. One of the things is the Nuremberg Docu Centre, which describes very detailed all atrocities that went on. We were pretty young when we learned about it in school. Since living in Canada I have to say that I don’t think they are really teaching about this in depth and how important it is for all of humanity not to repeat itself – kids here don’t take this serious enough and my son has been called “little Hilter” in school – which I find deeply offensive, but people here just don’t get how serious that is.

  • Leah

    Great post! I haven’t had to explain the Holocaust to my daughter yet (she’s 6). But I know the subject will likely come up before I’m ready. Your post has some great ideas for explaining it truthfully yet not scary. Thanks.

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Thank you so much, Leah. I welcome any more ideas and suggestions. It’s a tough topic.

  • Holly Rosen Fink

    I am so honored to be included, thank you. My children may already know too much about the Holocaust because I am slightly obsessed and guilt ridden that it ever happened. While I don’t condone telling them everything, I do support teaching them the difference between right and wrong so that they treat people the way I want them to be treated.

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Holly,

      I’d love to know what you’ve shared with your kids and can you remind me of their ages? I am a little obsessed, too. I also think it can be used as an example about sooooo many other things we still grapple with in society. Thanks for letting me link to your article!! xo

  • http://writingwishing.com/ Alison

    My children are still far too young for us to go into these sort of discussions, but yes, we definitely want to educate them on world history, and the lessons we all get from them. I think you’re going about it a great way!

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Alison,

      Thank you! There are so many lessons to be taught and learned…and it’s hard sometimes to have to share the ugly parts, too. But it has to be done.

  • Kim@Co-Pilot Mom

    My oldest is very interested in history, so we have begun these discussions with him. You are approaching the subject in the same way I try to: with honesty and facts that, while true, are not too detailed at first. It is so important that we talk about it, and I know we will continue to do so over the years.

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Kim,
      I’m so glad you’re on the same wavelength, and I’m glad to hear you think I’m on the right track! Sometimes they seem older than they really are, and therefore able to handle it…but I’m walking a fine line between education and fear! If I tell them too much at this age, it may have a negative impact and cause them to be afraid. which I don’t want!! So right now we have opened the door for more talks…and we’ll see where it goes!

  • Kory Chatelain

    Tell them the truth, you did the right thing by not telling them the gory details, but at least they know the gist of it and will come to you when they are willing to know more. Things like these need to be talked about, lest we forget it happened. History has a way of repeating itself and hopefully the more they know, the less chance that will happen.

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Thank you, Kory. It’s definitely true that history repeats itself. I’m a firm believer in that, and in teaching my kids as much as I can at the appropriate ages/stages. Some people may think I’m jumping the gun, but I don’t like hiding things from them. Important things. They need to understand the fucked up parts of our world and society…so that they can be smarter and better, and hopefully influence some of their peers in that way. Thanks for reading! ;-)

  • Katie

    I think you did a wonderful job starting the introduction of it. After all, it is devastatingly part of their ethnic culture. Educating my sons about world history and social justice issues is one of my top priorities. While they are too young to start talking about massacres of people, I do teach them the difference between kindness and cruelty and how we are called to love EVERYONE and help EVERYONE. Part of me can’t wait to talk about issues with my children, but a bigger part wants to keep them innocent forever. Sigh. Sounds like you are doing a wonderful job, friend!

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Katie,

      YES YES YES!! I love what you said about how we’re called to love and help everyone. And I, too, wish we could keep them innocent forever, but I feel a crushing responsibility to get them on the path to learning and understanding all the things that have happened before their birth…

  • http://www.misselaineouslife.com Elaine A.

    I think the Holocaust has come up before but like you, I did not go into a lot of detail. I have started The Book Thief but stopped and have not picked it back up yet It is hard for ME to take all of that in sometimes. But of course, these things do need to be talked about so, like you said, we do our very best not to have anything as horrid as this happen in our world again.

    • http://www.erinmargolin.com/ Erin Margolin

      Elaine,

      Oh, I’m glad you’re reading it, I hope you’ll enjoy it. It is hard to digest some of the details sometimes, but it’s a wonderful book, and the movie was beautifully done, too. xo