David Marwell, director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, is among that small, but notable, group of historians and scholars whose career focus is on examining the Holocaust, making some sense of it, and conveying its lessons more than 60 years later.
But learned as Marwell is in the field, he avoided introducing his own children to the full horror of the Holocaust until he considered them old enough to absorb it.
Marwell was associate director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington while his two sons, now 20 and 23, were growing up, he recalled. But “I didn’t want to bring them down there” until they reached middle school, he said, calling the Holocaust a “frightening” subject.
Marwell’s recollection came up as scholars, educators and Jewish leaders reacted to this month’s proposal by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to have each of his country’s fifth-grade students “adopt” a Jewish child of the same age who died in the Holocaust. The proposal, since modified, caused an uproar in France, with critics suggesting that requiring students as young as 10 to identify with a particular victim could be traumatic. Others cited Sarkozy’s lack of consultation with educators, psychiatrists or Jewish communal leaders, and possible repercussions from France’s ethnic populations, whose members may resent the attention to Jewish victimhood.
Some of the harshest criticism came from Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and former president of the European Parliament who supported Sarkozy’s election. Veil told the French magazine L’Express that her “blood turned to ice” as she heard the idea, which the president delivered in a February 13 speech to the CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewry. “It’s unimaginable, unbearable, tragic and, above all, unfair. … We cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear.”
Sarkozy, the first French president to address the CRIF, defended his idea, saying that children must be told the truth. “You do not traumatize children by giving them the gift of the memory of a country,” he said. Meanwhile, France’s education minister, Xavier Darcos, said last week that the plan could be adjusted so that entire classrooms, rather than individual students, could adopt a victim. He also announced that he would consult with various experts, including Veil, before the plan is implemented next fall.
But the vigorous debate stirred by Sarkozy’s proposal continued on both sides of the Atlantic. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University — appeared to frame the debate.
“However you feel about [Sarkozy’s proposal],” Lipstadt said, “it was a pronouncement made by a politician without consulting educators, without looking at research in the field, without asking whether it’s proper to teach 10-year-olds about the Holocaust. It was done without thought.”
Lipstadt, who has written about Sarkozy’s proposal in her blog, discussed how, in her view, the Holocaust has been politicized in some corners. “And now,” with Sarkozy’s proposal, she said, “there’s been a politicization of Holocaust education — and it’s the last thing we need.”
Foxman, however, said he doesn’t understand “this avalanche of criticism” aimed at Sarkozy’s proposal. “It’s a grand gesture” that ought to be welcomed by the Jewish community, said the Holocaust survivor from Poland who was hidden as a child. “The debate over whether it’s age-appropriate should be left to educators and psychologists. It’s a detail.”
Striking a similar note, Michael Berenbaum, a Los Angeles-based writer, lecturer and teacher on the Holocaust, called the question of age “almost immaterial.”
“Anyone who works in the field, like me, understands that [learning about the Holocaust] is enormously painful” to anyone, said Berenbaum, who served on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and is now a consultant to museums and filmmakers. But what’s more important than the student’s age, he continued, is the quality of the teacher and how he or she handles the subject.
“What we’ve discovered in Holocaust education is that you can teach children the most difficult material in a way that moves them, inspires them and informs them but doesn’t traumatize them,” Berenbaum said. If it’s done correctly, he added, teaching children about the Holocaust can give them the courage to reach out to the “outsider” in their classroom — anyone who is somehow different or being bullied.
Berenbaum called Sarkozy’s idea “potentially terrific.”
That view is shared by three Jewish educators who attended a seminar last weekend on teaching the Holocaust, sponsored the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Two of those teachers, Michele Mond and Penina Deutsch, said their institution, the Shulamith School for Girls in Flatbush, has lowered the age at which pupils begin learning about the Holocaust.
Educators at the school, a yeshiva for preschoolers through 12th-graders, “felt it would be too late” to start teaching the subject in fifth grade, said Deutsch, who was born in a displaced-persons camp to a mother who survived Auschwitz. “We decided we had to do more” for children whose families didn’t experience the Holocaust directly, including students from Sephardic families, and aren’t as familiar with the subject as other pupils.
Children at Shulamith now begin lessons on the Holocaust in third grade, at the age of 8 or 9. Deutsch, who teaches Hebrew studies to third-graders, said she doesn’t discuss the death camps with those younger students or present horrific images, but might discuss the cases of hidden children, what they did to survive and how they remained decent human beings.
In later years, those students will have the foundation to learn more about the Holocaust, said Mond, whose mother, born in Paris, survived the Shoah as a hidden child in France. Like Deutsch, Mond doesn’t dwell on “the worst of the worst” while teaching her fifth-grade students or her seventh-grade American history class. But neither does she ignore the evil that took place, she said, adding that even preschoolers learn about the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt and Haman, the villain associated with Purim.
Likewise, Mark Willner discusses the Holocaust with his sixth-grade students at Temple Emanu-El, the Upper East Side synagogue where he teaches Jewish history — and none, he said, have had nightmares. In fact, during the 42 years he has worked in education, as a social-studies teacher in New York City’s public schools and as a teacher at Temple Emanu-El, he hasn’t received any negative reaction to his lessons about the Holocaust.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage follows the lead of local public schools, in which students are usually introduced to the Holocaust in sixth grade and learn about it again in the later grades, said Elizabeth Edelstein, the museum’s education director. The state mandates Holocaust education only as part of 10th-grade world history, leaving to the schools themselves how much time to devote to the subject and which material to use.
Before sixth grade, Edelstein said, “their cognitive development doesn’t really support sophisticated historical analysis and interpretation of multiple viewpoints. … Some of the youngsters,” she added, “are just figuring out at that age that their parents were children themselves.”
When children in elementary school visit the museum, Marwell said, “We take them to the first and third floors” — dealing with Jewish life before and after the Holocaust — but skip the second floor, which concerns the Holocaust itself.
Similarly, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington recommends a special children’s exhibit, “Daniel’s Story,” for children under the age of 12, although the final decision is up to the child’s parents, said Peter Fredlake, coordinator of the museum’s teacher fellowship program. “Daniel’s Story” follows the experience of a fictional child, based on the lives of several actual youngsters, and includes no graphic images, Fredlake said, adding that Daniel survives in the end.
“I’ve heard it argued that kids see a lot worse on TV,” Fredlake said. “My answer to that would be, ‘Well, if they’ve seen worse, that doesn’t mean we need to show them more of it.’ There are many ways to teach the Holocaust without using graphic imagery.”