The Holocaust for 5-year-olds - Not as Bad as It Sounds

It’s not actually new for Israeli kindergartners to be learning about the Holocaust. It’s also pretty much inescapable- and it's not nearly as scary as the press has made it out to be.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

There’s been a lot of press lately, in Israel and abroad, about how the Israeli government plans to teach the Holocaust to kindergartners. “Developmentally way too young! Learning history is important but not Holocaust in kindergarten” and “I don’t think that we should insert this in an innocent 5-year-old; let them enjoy their childhood, teach it to them later on” were some of the Facebook comments posted by U.S. readers on an article on this topic last week.

If I didn’t have young children in the Israeli education system, I would probably feel the same way. But here’s the thing: It’s not actually new for Israeli kindergartners to be learning about the Holocaust. It’s also pretty much inescapable – and it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.

The current kindergarten guidelines – like extremely similar ones issued back in 2008 – are meant not to introduce the Holocaust to young children but to set limits on the information they receive, so that it is developmentally appropriate.

The 2008 recommendations describe the memories some teachers have of being unduly frightened as a result of the way they were taught the subject at a young age. “I saw shocking pictures and didn’t sleep at night,” recalls one, while another says: “I mostly remember that I would imagine how I would hide in a shelf in the closet, and once I tried to get into the closet and couldn’t do it. That scared me all the more, because if it would really happen...”

While some critics contend that these kinds of memories will be imprinted on our children’s minds because of the Education Ministry recommendations, which are part of an overall K-12 Holocaust curriculum, it is precisely this kind of inappropriate overexposure that the guidelines are meant to prevent.

Perhaps the most significant reason this curriculum is less alarming than some readers might have been led to believe is that, on the kindergarten level, it isn’t really a Holocaust curriculum at all. It’s more likely to be a brief discussion of why there’s going to be an air-raid siren going off at 10 A.M. – which brings us to one of the reasons this is more or less inescapable.

In the Diaspora, if you’re not in a Jewish institution on Holocaust Remembrance Day, you have to go out of your way to commemorate it. In Israel, you’d need astonishingly good earplugs to avoid it, just as (unless you’re cocooned in a community of fellow non-commemorators) you’d need to be exceptionally devoid of curiosity were you to fail to wonder why the grown-ups were standing silent and still while the loud noise rises and falls for two long minutes.

Some kindergartners will have older siblings participating in their school’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, or hear something about Yom Hashoah on the radio, or want to know why there’s a short, fat candle lit on the kitchen counter.

“Kindergarten children, like all the country’s citizens, are exposed to the siren and to the special atmosphere of this day,” the Education Ministry states in its Holocaust guidelines for kindergarteners.

“In an era of fully accessible media, the children are exposed to events in varying degrees, and pick up bits of information without the cognitive ability to ascribe meaning or significance to them. The central role of the adults and educators on this day is to help the children organize the information they have picked up.”

The teachers are urged to mention the Shoah only on Holocaust Remembrance Day itself and maybe the day before or the day after, and to address the subject in a way that gives their students “a feeling of security.”

My oldest daughter’s kindergarten teacher sent home a note saying she wasn’t going to spend much time on Holocaust Remembrance Day or Memorial Day, but would “talk a little about what each child heard about these days, and in that way I’ll make some order, and we’ll stand for the siren. On the recommendation of the Education Ministry, we won’t expand on the topic for children so young.”

Sounds almost reasonable, doesn’t it? So far, this isn’t exactly the scandalous stuff – “Schindler’s List” for 5-year-olds, say – that it might have sounded like at the outset. But what does the Education Ministry recommend teachers actually say?

Teachers are supposed to explain that the siren helps us remember something that happened a long time ago (“It’s important to clarify that this period was before the children were born and before their parents were born”) in a far-away land (“the distance should be emphasized”). And what exactly is being remembered? “At that time, there were people (who can be described as ‘Nazis’ if the teacher thinks the children use this term) who did grave things to the Jews, and that’s what we call the ‘Shoah’ (define the word ‘Shoah’ as a big disaster, something very bad).”

But wait, there’s more: “In the course of the discussion, it’s important to describe the courage of the Jews in that period with examples like ‘Even when people had very little to eat, they shared with others. They also helped each other and kept hoping.’ It’s important to add and to emphasize that in that period, there were also people who were not Jewish who helped the Jews.”

That’s it, people. That’s the big bad specter of Israel teaching the Holocaust to 5-year-olds. Adults know the Holocaust was terrifying and incomprehensible, but let’s face it: The way the Education Ministry frames the issue for the very young, “Hansel and Gretel” – not to mention Haman and Pharaoh – is scarier than this.

Yes, I realize that individual teachers may give kindergartners a bigger dose of history on Holocaust Remembrance Day than they’re ready for. But if they do, that will be despite the Education Ministry guidelines, not because of them.

Shoshana Kordova is an editor at Haaretz English Edition, she writes the Word of the Day column.