My friends think I’m obsessed with the Holocaust. My husband claims that I can’t have breakfast without talking about it. They are all exaggerating of course, but the truth is not far away: the Holocaust is a crucial part of my identity as a person and as a Jew. I am the grandchild of four survivors. My father was born in the summer of 1942 in a tiny town in the northwest corner of the Ukraine. You can imagine it didn’t go well from there.
For all those reasons, most people are shocked to find out that I still haven’t talked to my children about the Holocaust.
I could say it’s that they are too young – even my oldest who is nine. I could say that more important than their ages, I know they aren’t ready for it, my oldest especially. And while those are good reasons, valid reasons even, they aren’t the real reasons.
I’m not entirely sure what the real reason is, except that it’s not time yet. Maybe because I knew too many details, too early. I remember sitting in the backseat of my car as a child and hearing the story of my uncle, five years old, who was in hiding with his grandparents and others in cellar. They were found, paraded around town, and then stoned to death. And I remember clearly wondering from the backseat, what does it mean that they were stoned to death? Did they put stones on them? Did they throw stones at them? And thinking that I probably shouldn’t ask.
It’s not that I want to shield my kids from hard realities. My kids know about the dangers in Jewish history. (My six year old is so used to the litany of villains in every holiday story that he recently asked who was the bad guy in the Shabbat story.) But I’m also not in a rush to expose them to the darkness of our history.
Because once you know, you can’t go back. And the Holocaust can be enormous in its imprint. It can become bigger than all other moments in Jewish history, bigger than Moses and Torah, bigger even than God. I want my kids to be strong in their Jewish identity before they need to really face it.
I haven’t completely ignored the subject with my oldest. He knows about the war, he knows that people – family members of ours – lost their homes and their lives. He knows it as the story of a war. But it could have been any war, he doesn’t know it as the story of the destruction of European Jewry, the decimation and degradation of a civilian population based on their religion and ethnicity. He doesn’t know that children and old people were targeted as much as anyone else. He doesn’t really know.
One day I’ll begin to tell him. In the best way that I know how to educate, I’ll tell him using the stories of our family, the story of our people. I’ll tell him about the ordinary peole who survived and fell victim, those who defied the Nazis in all manners. I’ll pull out those “picture book” Holocaust stories, books that should never be shown to young children in my opinion, and we’ll talk about the stories that make up the real facts of the Holocaust.
This year however, I’ll remember on my own. I’ll be grateful for the members of my family who did survive and remember those who didn’t.