Monday, April 8, 2013

Until We Teach Them


Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Coming so soon after Passover, the holiday that is also about remembering, I am cognizant that for parents, this day is also about teaching. We need to teach our children about the Holocaust, so that they, too, can remember. Until we teach them, they have nothing to remember.

Nothing to remember.

It's strange, isn't it? To imagine living in this world not knowing that six million of your only-two-or three-generations-removed ancestors were callously murdered? But that is what it is to be a kid. You don't know, until someone tells you. 

Bella's initiation happened not by me and not by a teacher, but in that classic educational setting: on the bus home from school. She was in second or third grade; the girl who broke the news was a year or two older. It only took a half hour for her to come home in shock, with mouthfuls of questions about concentration camps and torture, Anne Frank and Hitler. 

I don't remember when I first learned about the Holocaust, but I do remember knowing, as a child, many older people who were survivors. I remember hearing those survivors tell their stories, as guest speakers at my Jewish day school. I remember watching all nine hours of the film Shoah, in my seventh grade Judaic studies class. I remember my eight grade English teacher assigned us to choose and read an autobiography, and then make a presentation in the voice of the author. One of my classmates chose Moonwalk and came to school as Michael Jackson. I chose Alicia: My Story, and came to school as Alicia Appleman-Jurman, a heroic survivor. I identified very deeply with Alicia, and I wondered with fear: could I have survived, as a child alone, the way she had? Always, when I heard survivors' stories, I imagined my family, thrown from our home, degraded and rounded up and marked for murder. Every story was personal.

I remember--I will never forget--visiting the sites of concentration camps Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Majdanek as a seventeen-year-old, with USY Poland/ Israel Pilgrimage. I remember that I expected to cry, and that at first I couldn't cry, and then I cried. I remember that it was horrible and  shocking and unreal yet real, and that all those things felt just right at seventeen, when my life was already full of heightened drama. I remember that I wrote poetry about what I saw, and that some of my friends made art, and that this made us feel affirmed.

I asked Bella, today, if she remembered that conversation on the bus that took place more than a year ago. She did. I asked if she remembered why she was so shaken by it. She told me that she didn't know, then, that there was such a thing as terrorism. It was an interesting answer because for my children--whose entire lives have coincided with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; who are used to being patted down in the airport; who learned about 9/11 on the day that Osama Bin Laden was killed--terrorism is synonymous with evil. Bella doesn't understand, yet, about degrees of terror, or about mass murder. 

It's up to me and her dad to teach her. 

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