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A Lesson in Madness

Teaching students about the Holocaust is a vital, yet delicate, undertaking. How much should kids be told? And when?


Before introducing Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl" to her eighth-grade classes at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth, Rusty Kaman wrote the word "Holocaust" on the board and asked her students if they knew what it meant. Only eight out of 80 children had even a vague idea. "They knew it had something to do with Hitler," she says.

The Holocaust (1933-1945) is a tragic chapter in history during which 6 million Jews and an estimated 5 million others were murdered by the Nazis. In the past, the Holocaust was rarely mentioned in the classroom. However, interest in Holocaust studies is increasing. Fifteen states, including California, now mandate or recommend that the Holocaust be taught in schools.

"The Holocaust happened in modern Western civilization. This isn't simply a crisis in Jewish history, it's a crisis for us all," says Gerald Margolis, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Because of its complexity and impact on mankind, teaching the Holocaust is a challenge. But proponents of Holocaust studies feel it is necessary in order for youngsters to understand that a similar tragedy could happen in any society. One of the basics of a Holocaust curriculum is the analysis of prejudice, racism and extreme hatred that could possibly lead to genocide. However, while most experts don't oppose references to other genocides, they think parents and teachers should be cautious when comparing the Holocaust to other events.

"This isn't a competition of who suffered the most," says Alex Grobman, director of the Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust in Los Angeles. "But never before had a civilized state mobilized all its organizations to systematically destroy a people."

There are many moral issues to consider when discussing the Holocaust, such as the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders, the "rescuers," and the Jewish resistance, both active and spiritual.

"Therefore, teachers must choose the message they want to convey and match it to age-appropriate materials, such as books and videos," says Shulamit Imber, director of Pedagogue, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel.

At what age should Holocaust studies begin? Margolis suggests parents introduce the subject whenever their child is mature enough to handle the information. They should choose a suitable book to read and discuss together.

Imber thinks the best time for schools to teach the Holocaust is in fifth or sixth grade, when children begin to form their value systems. Delaying Holocaust studies until high school is almost too late, she says.

There are a number of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about children's experiences in Nazi-controlled Europe. By reading the personal stories of children living during this period, students put a human face to the statistics. "They should know that before the Holocaust, there was a vital Jewish culture in Europe. Children lived regular lives. They were interested in schoolwork, family and friends, just like children of today. Then the Nazis came and said, 'You aren't a regular child. You can no longer be a part of our society,' " Imber says.

Karen Shawn, regional director of the American Society for Yad Vashem in New York, believes there should be limits to what we tell younger children. Although teachers should provide an overview, graphic details should be omitted. "I recommend teaching what happened up to the concentration camps but not inside the camps," she says.

Shawn says the stories of the hidden children are especially appropriate for sixth- to eighth-graders. "They can understand and discuss how it felt for hidden children to be separated from families, to have their identity stripped, giving up their name, religion and beliefs," she says.

Most experts agree that by the time students are in high school, they should learn in more depth about the Holocaust, including the deportations, ghettos, concentration camps and torture. However, teachers or parents should not bombard older teens with such horrific details as photos of mass graves and bodies says Bruce Wilkoff, a history teacher at Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard. "It would be just another horror show, like the movies, to them," he says. Give them the information, Shawn adds, but don't overwhelm them with traumatizing details, or it can turn students off.

Disseminating misinformation or trivializing the subject are also potential problems. Shawn tells the story of one teacher who reduced the book "Night," by Elie Wiesel (Bantam, 1982), to a vocabulary test.

Nevertheless, the Holocaust must be brought into the classroom if we want to prevent a recurrence, many educators say. Kaman knew she was on the right track after teaching the Holocaust when her students began to share clippings of current examples of bigotry. "They aren't just thinking about clothes and parties," Kaman says. "They care about what is happening in the world."

Fourteen-year-old Mayra Rodriguez, one of Kaman's students, agrees: "We are the future, and we must educate ourselves. If we know about the Holocaust, it is less likely to happen again." She adds, "There is one thing I don't understand, though--why did the rest of the world let it happen?"

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