How not to teach the Holocaust to kids

Israeli kids don't need to be exposed to the Holocaust through the brutal images that featured at my American Jewish summer camp - but there's no avoiding the subject here either.

Auschwitz Holocaust
Participants of the March of the Living walk along rail tracks Auschwitz-Birkenau on Monday April 8, 2013. / Photo by AP
By Don Futterman
Published 14:35 11.11.13

At age seven, I informed my parents that Abe Lincoln had tried to kill his own son. They disputed this alternate history, but when I insisted this was what I had been taught on my first day of Hebrew School, they called the principal to complain. It took a while until anyone made the Abraham connection.

Kids can’t always put their fragments of knowledge together to form the proper puzzle, so I’m not opposed to the government’s new plan to formalize Holocaust education starting in kindergarten. Israeli kids cannot avoid the subject, and better that young children should get some instruction from teachers than to be left to their own limited devices. Teachers too seek guidance.

My first formal exposure to Holocaust education came in a Zionist summer camp. In 1972, the Holocaust was still a private Jewish tragedy, not yet part of the Western lexicon. Everyone knew "The Diary of Anne Frank," and I had already read Elie Wiesel’s "Night" and "Dawn," but Wiesel had yet to become a Nobel Prize-winning prophet. The television miniseries "Holocaust," which, in the spirit of "Roots," would bring the Holocaust into the living rooms of America, was still two years away. The proliferation of movies, memoirs and novels that we have today was unimaginable.

At Tel Yehudah, my group of 14-year-olds was shown a 16-millimeter projection of one of the only Holocaust films that existed at the time, "Night and Fog." "Night and Fog" is a documentary parade of the some of the most brutal Holocaust images ever captured on celluloid. It was made by Alain Resnais in 1955 as an antifascist tract critiquing French practices in Algeria, drawing on footage from survivors and the Allies as well as from Nazi sources. I learned later that the film was disparaged in certain quarters because Resnais had tried to universalize the Holocaust.

Some of visuals in "Night and Fog" – mountains of bodies being bulldozed – have become familiar from documentaries now aired on television, or from Holocaust museums. But if our educational staff wanted to shock us, they succeeded. I was dazed for the rest of the day, and on some level, rattled for weeks after. One image that appeared in the film – I will not describe it – tormented me for the rest of the summer.

What was the nature of my unease? The symptoms were distraction, shudders, anxiety. I would flash on the images in the middle of some other activity, in settings that seemed entirely inappropriate; during dinner or Shabbat services or a walk in the woods with a girl. The unconscious does not follow a curriculum.

I don’t want to exaggerate my reaction. I was not overcome by night terrors, I did not fear that Nazis were coming to get us, although we liked to spook ourselves with tales of ex-Nazis hiding in the camp’s neighboring town. And if I was slightly sickened, that could be seen as an appropriate response to learning about the Holocaust.

Years later, as a summer camp counselor, I encountered "Night and Fog" again. Shlomo, the typical Israeli envoy, with his gold-toothed smile, Bolshevik mustache, kibbutz background and ignorance of education, trotted out "Night and Fog" for the 10-to-12-year-olds on Holocaust Day.

I filibustered the staff to prevent it. The children were too young, and I didn’t want them haunted as I was (and continue to be 40 years later) by these horrifying images, or to get inured to such nightmarish pictures. Shlomo was adamant. "Night and Fog" had been shown on Israeli television, and while it was an unpleasant experience, he argued, it caused no damage to young children. I was a namby-pamby American and shouldn’t be cosseting Jewish children from the truth of our history. How would they ever understand the threats facing the Jewish people? And why else would they want to leave home and move to Israel?

Holocaust education is spotted with good intentions gone awry; whether dressing kids in rags, concentration-camp simulations, attempts to “feel the experience,” having children imagine their friends and families disappearing, or using the Holocaust to promote an agenda. Such crudities are not always a thing of the past, and the misdirected Holocaust rhetoric by our politicians continues unabated.

My English and my stamina were better than Shlomo’s, and when the staff vetoed the film I pulled an all-nighter to create a Holocaust Museum using blow-ups of the famous photos – e.g., the boy with his hands raised – and played docent all day, exploiting the photos to pique their interest of hundreds of kids so I could provide context. My approach differed from Shlomo’s only by degree, and was probably wrongheaded, but hopefully that proportionality made some difference. Likewise, a kindergartner may need only a 15-minute orientation to understand why there is a siren and why her TV shows are off the air, and not a full unit of Holocaust studies.

I’m concerned about the dangers of the new Holocaust curriculum plan: traumatizing children, cheapening the encounter by deploying gore for shock value, overly simplistic discourse, partisan politics. The values questions are complex. Does Never Again mean we will never be victimized again, or that no one should be victimized? Using the Holocaust to promote a nationalist agenda or to encourage kids to hate or fear non-Jews cannot be our educational agenda. On some level, using the central existential disaster of our history for any ulterior purpose should be suspect. I have no doubt the educators involved have the same concerns.

Don Futterman is the program director of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation that works to strengthen Israeli civil society. He can be heard weekly on the Promised Podcast.