What I Learned in Kindergarten Today About the Holocaust

Education Minister Shay Piron’s controversial plan to introduce mandatory K-12 Holocaust studies has drawn a range of responses from educators. How do you teach the Shoah to preschoolers?

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Kids in a kindergarten.
Kids in a kindergarten.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yarden Skop
Yarden Skop

In recent weeks, media outlets have been filled with discussions about Education Minister Shay Piron’s plan to make Holocaust education mandatory, starting in kindergarten. Many parents are upset, saying the subject is inappropriate for young children. Many others are pleased that teachers will finally be getting guidance on what is and isn’t appropriate to tell children of various ages.

But many teachers are eager to receive training and a set curriculum for this topic, which is currently taught only in 11th- and 12th-grade history. A study conducted in 2010 by Prof. Erik Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, for instance, found that 72 percent of teachers and principals in grades seven to 12 thought more classroom hours should be devoted to the Holocaust. Most also thought the topic should be used as a springboard for teaching values: 78 percent of principals and 67 percent of teachers thought Holocaust education should emphasize Zionist values, while 57 percent of principals and 60 percent of teachers thought it should emphasize universal values.

Judging by conversations with kindergarten and elementary-school teachers, most would prefer not to deal with the Holocaust at all. The problem is that it simply isn’t possible: Children hear the siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day and hear stories from their parents; they see material about the Holocaust on television, and they come to school wanting answers.

“You have to prepare the children for the siren, because it’s impossible to ignore it, and it frightens them,” says one kindergarten teacher from the center of the country. “I explain that the siren is in memory of people who were killed in a war. I’ve often asked myself why we need this. But when I tried to find out what they know, I discovered that they know a lot from their home and their environment, and I have no choice; I can’t completely ignore it. The children come to kindergarten with prior knowledge and ask about this issue. I have to know how to answer them.”

A kindergarten teacher in what she calls a disadvantaged neighborhood describes the problem even more graphically: “There are children who come with horror stories from home. One boy scared the whole class by saying his mother told him that if anyone doesn’t stand for the siren, policemen will come and take him to the Holocaust. Another boy told about how Jews were burned alive, and then another boy said, ‘Yes, and they drank their blood.’ This put me in a difficult situation, which obligated me to deal with content I would obviously have preferred to keep from them at that age.”

While the Education Ministry program has not been finalized, officials said it will be a well-organized curriculum with 15 to 20 hours’ worth of material that teachers from kindergarten onward will teach in advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is being drawn up in cooperation with Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, which already trains teachers in this subject.

Each year, around 2,000 teachers and 1,000 education students attend seminars at Yad Vashem on Holocaust instruction. The school also holds a biennial international conference on Holocaust education, attended by about 1,200 teachers.

Rachel Matoki, the incoming head of the ministry’s pedagogical secretariat, told Haaretz the Holocaust “must not be taught only through atrocities ... We’re talking about reinforcing universal humanist values. That’s what I think is important.”

Sarit Hoch-Markovitz, director of teacher training at the Yad Vashem school, said the curriculum, which she is helping to build, will include different books for different ages. In younger grades, the program will focus on individual children; in fourth and fifth grades, the focus will shift to families; and in higher grades, the lens will widen to encompass entire communities. But the children discussed in the younger grades will all be real children who survived. “We’re being careful not to talk to them about children who died,” she said.

The children will also learn historical concepts, like where Poland is and what the yellow star was, Hoch-Markovitz added. “They’ll learn about coping and values. And we’re emphasizing the values of rescue and mutual aid.”

In kindergarten and the first and second grades, teachers will use a book called "Tommy," which consists of letters to a real boy who survived the Holocaust, from his father in Theresienstadt. As Yad Vashem explains on its website, “Tommy was drawn by the Czech artist Bedrich Fritta as a present for his son Thomas on his third birthday – a birthday celebrated in the book the way people would celebrate outside the ghetto – with a party including cakes, presents and a clown. Fritta illustrated the book with drawings of the life he remembered outside the ghetto walls. He wanted to teach his son about all the things in a normal world, such as trees, parks, birds, and flowers – for the day in the future when he hoped Tommy would face a better life. The book did not reflect reality – instead, it was a gift of optimism.”

“We want to protect the children, but we also can’t stick our heads in the sand,” Hoch-Markovitz said. “I can’t hide the bad things that happened in the world, and which they encounter via the media, from the children.”

Nevertheless, she added, “We try to show the sparks of light within the darkness.” And so far, she said, “Once people become familiar with our program in depth, we haven’t encountered any opposition to it.”

Still, not everyone is enthusiastic over the new program. Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, for instance, believes the absence of a fixed curriculum has actually been beneficial, as it allowed a multiplicity of different approaches and individual initiatives to flourish.

And then there was the kindergarten teacher who said she objected to teaching the Holocaust to her students at all, because “discourse about the Holocaust often slides into nationalist discourse. There isn’t enough alternative discourse about the Holocaust in the Israeli public square, and I don’t want to perpetuate the prevailing views.”

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