Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel is tougher than all other somber days — it is a day with no uplifting side to it, nothing to celebrate alongside the marking of a tragedy, no purification of one’s soul through mourning. The survivors are aging and dying, and the witnesses to their stories are now the not-so-young-anymore parents of the generation that will hardly remember hearing a firsthand testimony at school or at home.
These parents learned a couple of days ago that Israel’s Education Ministry intends to start teaching children about the Holocaust in kindergarten. A debate ensued — a debate that should be expected. There is no “right age” for teaching about the Holocaust, and there will be no agreed-upon curriculum for teaching about the Holocaust. The fewer the number of survivors we can hear and talk to, the more debates we are going to have about — well, it is a blunt term to use, but also the most accurate one — the politics of Holocaust remembrance.
The debate over the politics of remembrance is a multilayered debate over many questions: To what extent does Israel want the Holocaust to be the seminal event that impacts its policies? To what extent does it want its citizens to retain a very high measure of Holocaust consciousness? It is a debate about the rationale and the aim of teaching the Holocaust. Clearly, Israel doesn’t teach its youngsters about the Holocaust because it is an interesting historic event. Why, then? The answer — the many answers — is the key to deciding at what age we should begin the process, and to deciding what messages, images and stories should be included in this process.
In the debate over the kindergarten curriculum, we can detect the undertones of people who want to shield the next generation of children from the traumatic stories and the horrific scenes of the Holocaust. Of course, these parents have a point: Holocaust education at a young age leaves its mark on the young souls of young Israelis. I see it all around me. I see it almost every day — not just on Holocaust Remembrance Day. I have friends of my own generation who had recurring bad dreams for years as young children because of the images of the Holocaust. I have friends who used to look for hiding places in every house they happened to visit. I have friends who can’t stand the sound of the German language. I have friends who barely have days in which they don’t mention the Holocaust. In fact, I myself barely have days in which the Holocaust is not mentioned. That is surely the result of what we saw and heard and learned at a young age, which can have a lasting, penetrating and disturbing psychological impact.
For my generation, or at least for some population segments of my generation, the Holocaust is very much a traumatic experience — not an event we understood through a normal process of education. For the next generation, things will not and cannot be the same. They will not have close relatives who “were there.” They will not see survivors wandering in their streets. Their kindergarten teacher will not show them the number tattooed on her forearm, as if it were the most natural thing to show a 4-year-old child. And this adult/teacher will not sit with the children and sob all day when Holocaust Remembrance Day arrives. Things will be different — and the outcome is also going to be different.
But saying it will be different still leaves two possible educational paths to be considered: The first would be an attempt to get as close as we can to having the traumatic type of Holocaust education that my own generation experienced — to attempt to keep this event as a disturbing and unsettling presence in our children’s lives. The second would be to begin the process of turning the Holocaust into something that is still very important to learn about and understand, but that is not as deeply driven into Israel’s next generation’s conscience as it was driven into ours; to normalize the process of learning and thinking about the Holocaust.
In recent days, the debate surrounding the new plan for young students’ Holocaust education has focused on the psychological damage to children. That is the track that most experts, real and self-appointed, have chosen to talk about in recent days, and for good reason, as this was also the track that the Education Ministry chose to emphasize when it publicized its plan: The goal of the new instructions is “to prevent reactions of anxiety that are liable to accompany Holocaust Day.” The teachers are asked to avoid “simulations and plays, [which] expose the children to experiences of identification, as well as the display of pictures that are liable to arouse fears,” says the program.
It is a sensible guideline if you accept its premise: that children should be taught about the Holocaust, that they should be taught by their kindergarten teachers, that there should be a one-guideline-fits-all for such an issue. The objection to having a guideline — and such educational programs — is also sensible, if your goal is to postpone the exposure of children to Holocaust education and, hopefully, to prevent the mental suffering from having to deal with this highly distressing story.
This might be a worthy goal, but we should be honest about the fact that it would come with other consequences. If the next generation of children are somewhat more shielded from this horror in comparison to my own generation, this will impact not just the next-generation’s mental health, but it will also alter the way they internalize and remember the Holocaust.
In other words: For my own generation, trauma, trepidation, horror — young-age horror — was part of the process of internalizing the story and drawing the lessons of the Holocaust. It is an abnormal, maybe irresponsible, maybe even illegitimate, yet still powerful, educational tool. If the trauma experienced is lessened, the educational process is going to be different, and the result is going to be different.
Maybe it’s time for this change. Maybe it is good for Israel to have the Holocaust remembered in a way that is less horrid for children. Maybe there is a need to better contain the burdensome presence of the Holocaust as a daily feature in Israel’s public life. The debate over the proper level of trauma is a worthy one. The debate over the proper presence of the Holocaust in Israel’s daily life is also a worthy one. And, if we are honest about it, we should recognize the fact that it can have far-reaching consequences: A less-distressing presence of the Holocaust at a young age is going to make the memory of the Holocaust less formative at an older age, too.