Parenting for the Perplexed: Right time to talk about the Holocaust

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected].

You have written about the difficult parts of Purim and Passover, but what about the Holocaust? Is it totally out of bounds for young children? When is an appropriate time? We have survivors in our extended family, but not in our children’s everyday life. What do you advise? Parents in Lafayette

Dear Parents: The Holocaust obviously trumps all other Jewish holidays and commemorations in requiring utmost thoughtfulness and caution about when and how to introduce it. As a general rule, I would say do not broach the subject until middle school. However, if your child has picked up information and asks you about it, you will need to address it. The inclination or pressure to bring up the Holocaust sooner may stem from:

• Relatives who are survivors (becoming more and more rare) and deeply engaged in your children’s lives. Their need to tell their story, your child’s curiosity about their childhood, or the number on their arm may all be the initial prompt.

• Rather commonly (according to Morgan Blum, director of education at the JFCS Holocaust Center,, both secular and religious school directors often wish to introduce the topic in the elementary-school grades.

I am in full agreement with Morgan that this is much too young! Even though early Holocaust education initiatives come from a place of passion and personal interest in the topic, I agree with Morgan that including the details of the Holocaust is not appropriate for children below sixth grade.

So what do you do if the subject does come up? As with any sensitive topic, ask “What have you heard?” or “What are you wondering about?”

You may find out that she is only wondering if it’s a day off from school. But if you learn that your child has heard that it is something awful, about killing, gassing or concentration camps, get to work. Be careful with your choice of words so you do not create a misimpression that we are talking about camps like summer camp. Take your child’s lead and err on the side of vague: “It was really, really awful.” Acknowledge that many, many Jews (and other people) were killed, but don’t go into how.

With young children (preschool to second grade), consider a simple ritual-cum-explanation suggested by my friend and veteran early childhood educator Janet Harris: “During circle or group meeting time, I would show the children all different types of candles: birthday candles, Shabbat, Havdallah, etc. I would then bring out a yahrzeit candle and ask if anyone has ever seen one before. Then I would follow the children’s lead in a discussion, and describe the yahrzeit candle as a ‘sad candle.’ ” You can do the same at home and ask what your child might think of for a “sad candle.” Follow that with whatever amount of information seems appropriate about when or why adults are sad.

Remember that if you are talking about family members, you want to share what their lives were like before the Holocaust. Focus on the ordinary aspects that the child can relate to, such as games they played, what their school was like, who lived in their home, what they ate, how they celebrated holidays, birthdays and weddings. The point is to help your child imagine these relatives and their lives, to balance the dark shadow of their death.

For middle-school children, still gauge what they need to know by asking questions first and listening carefully. Provide the information that most of Europe’s Jews were killed, that the Nazis were the most evil regime the world had seen, that people starved and were in forced labor camps, etc. I would still try to avoid the gas chambers and horrors of that level. There are storybooks that are age-appropriate and can help you address the subject. You can get a wisely annotated bibliography from Morgan Blum ([email protected]).

By the time they reach high school, most children are ready for the historical facts, but even here, I would proceed with caution, especially when it comes to showing photographic images, particularly in film.

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale, an Israeli native, is a Bay Area Jewish community professional and author.