How does a parent broach the subject of genocide with their child? When is the right time? These are excellent questions and thankfully, no parent or teacher need be alone in finding the answers. The Holocaust, like many disturbing chapters in history, should not be taught all at once, but in stages.
Start the early years off with basic concepts of community, history, emotion and marking time, and move on from there. Many guides exist and when your child is mature enough to have all the pieces put together, you can confidently teach that as well.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a terrific, free guide for parents and educators titled, "Teaching young children about the Holocaust." This paper includes dozens of age appropriate teaching ideas.
One example for teaching 3-5 year olds is to gather an assortment of candles (birthday, decorative, memorial, religious candles, etc.) then ask your child or students to describe what they know about them and if they have ever used them.
"Explain that some candles we light to celebrate happy events (birthdays), some we light to mark special times (Sabbath), and some we light to mark sad events and remember people we love who are no longer with us," said Janet Harris, who authored this idea.
The Wisconsin-Madison guide has many other suggestions for older children, including Dr. Seuss' powerful book The Sneetches that teaches the ideas of prejudice, discrimination and conformity among other concepts.
Additionally, a major concern among educators is that students learn need to learn not just about the Holocaust's destruction, but that they also need to learn about the lives European Jews led and the contributions they made to society before and after the arrival of Hitler's regime.
"You need to give students a sense of what existed in those communities years before the eve of World War II. You have to convey what was lost," said Lou Hirsh, Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, Ariz., managing editor.
Wisconsin-Madison's guide also makes video and picture book suggestions such as "Daniel's Story," a fifteen-minute video that correlates with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's exhibit for young children. It is not explicit and helps bring up many important questions. Though it is out of print, many Jewish institutions own it and can loan it out.
A final thought.
When approaching the subject of the Holocaust or genocide, consider the thoughts conveyed on the final page of the textbook, Facing History and Ourselves: The Jews of Poland, a letter from a principle to her teachers on the first day of the school year:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.