Never too young to learn 'Never Again'

"Kindergarten is a safe environment and it's important for them to hear about it from someone who is familiar to them."

holocaust kids 88 (photo credit: )
holocaust kids 88
(photo credit: )
Its 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day, and 30 kindergarten children squirm in their chairs as their teacher starts to ask them questions about the Shoah. "What was the name of the man who wanted to kill all the Jews?" she asks the five- and six-year-olds. "Hitler!" they answer in unison. "And why did he want to kill them?" she asks, responding before the children have time: "Because they looked different. While most Germans had blond hair and blue eyes, the Jews looked like most of you - they had dark hair and dark eyes." The children look at their classmates and nod their heads. The teacher continues: "Remember last week when - and we are not using any names here - some of you were calling out names at the Ethiopian children walking by, laughing at them because they have darker skin? Remember how we asked the Ethiopian children to come in and talk with us? We found out that they were just like you. That all children, despite the color of their skin or hair or how they look on the outside, are actually all the same?" "Right, all children are the same," echoes one of the girls. "If the children understand only one thing from this day - that racism and discrimination is wrong, then all the work I've put into teaching is worth it," the teacher tells me after she has finished her discussion with the class. "That, and the message that it should never happen again, that we have to keep the State of Israel a strong country so these terrible things will not be repeated. Those are the two most important things these young children should learn on Holocaust Remembrance Day." "Mazi" was one of 20 kindergarten teachers who spent this past year taking a special course at Yad Vashem's International School of Holocaust Studies on how to present the Shoah to preschool children. Yael Richler-Friedman, director of curriculum development for the school and one of those responsible for initiating the course for kindergarten teachers, explains that the course grew out of a one-day seminar held at Yad Vashem two years ago. "It is very important to start teaching children about the Holocaust while they are still in kindergarten," she says. "It's a safe environment and it's important for them to hear about it from someone who is familiar to them." "The Holocaust is part of our national conscience," continues Richler-Friedman, adding that aside from the 20 kindergarten teachers who have taken the course, the School for Holocaust Studies has also carried out special training days for more than 1,100 preschool teachers countrywide. "The children hear the siren, the TV stations shut down early and they hear older siblings and parents talking about the Shoah. It is a day with a difference, and children aged five and six start to become very aware of Holocaust Remembrance Day events, therefore it is important to help them grasp, in a controlled way, what is going on around them." Pedagogical director Shulamit Imber explains the philosophy behind teaching such a subject to preschoolers: "The Holocaust should be taught in a spiral, modular format which expands according to age. At a very young age, the topic is presented in terms of individual experiences, supplemented by discussions of certain basic concepts in a limited and controlled way, without revealing to them all the events and atrocities that occurred. "The younger the child, the more appropriate it is to present him or her with a personal story that has a positive dimension to it - a rescue story or one about a Righteous Among the Nations. For older children, to broaden their understanding of the real variety of fates for Jews during the Holocaust, we talk about the family. Concentrating on the family enables us to touch on the main framework with which children are familiar and for which they are able to develop empathy. At this stage, we can also begin raising basic issues understandable to children, based on their world and family experience. Their knowledge of the day-to-day challenges faced by Jews during the Holocaust is expanded, with attention to various ways of coping with crisis situations." "We believe this course is very important and should be opened up to all kindergarten teachers," emphasizes Richler-Friedman. "Lack of understanding among children only creates fear." BACK IN the kindergarten, the teacher notes there are two children in the class whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors. She has asked their parents to write up the personal stories and begins to relay it to the rest of the group. Skipping over the more tragic events, the teacher highlights that both stories have happy endings because the survivors managed to reach Israel, get married, have children and now grandchildren, who are sitting in the classroom today. "Omer's grandmother was six during the Shoah," she tells the children. "That is the same age as all of you, and she was hidden in a kitchen cupboard during the war. She was not allowed to speak or make any noise, so that the Nazis would not find her." The girls sitting next to Omer nod their heads, and the boys, usually fidgeting and raring to go, are enthralled by the stories of war and heroism. "There are always a few parents who come to me and ask, 'Do you really need to be teaching my child about the Holocaust while he/she is still so young?'" says Mazi, who has been working with preschoolers for more than 30 years. "The course we took at Yad Vashem really gave us confidence to teach the subject; it especially helped the less experienced teachers." "I'm sure that it really helped the teachers present a very difficult subject matter," agrees Richler-Friedman. Of the materials Yad Vashem recommended teachers use in kindergarten presentations are two books - Tommy and I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly. Both tell the stories of children who suffered during the Holocaust but ultimately managed to stay positive and survive. The teacher has chosen to start their Holocaust learning with I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly, a personal story written by Channa Gafnit. She shows them the accompanying drawings of Channa and her family moving into the ghetto. She tells them about life in the ghetto, how more than one family had to share a room, how there was little or no food and how it was very, very cold. She also tells them about Channa's recurring dream - that she is running free in a field of wild flowers and playing with other children. Finally, she explains to the children how Channa's grandmother asked a gentile Polish woman to smuggle Channa out of the ghetto in a large soup pot and tells them that there were many people who helped the Jews, even at great risk of being caught by the Nazis, and that they were very brave. The children are engaged and have a lot of questions and thoughts of their own. "What were her parents' names?" asks one boy. "If the parents worked for the Germans for no pay, then they had no money to buy food," observes another. They are momentarily enthralled, until the teacher says its playtime and they all run out the door into the spring sunshine.