Talking Holocaust With Your Kids


I was picking up the baby and Yosef, my three-year old son, at the synagogue their daycare rents space from when we wandered into the setup for an event. There were rows of chairs facing a projection screen and six enormous white candles at the front of the room — clearly a Holocaust memorial service, on the occasion of Yom HaShoah.

We walk through the room and Yosef is all intrigued by whatever it is that intrigues three-year olds about everything. I’m trying to get him to put on his coat with the baby strapped to my chest, clawing at my neck. Nearby is a friend of mine, also trying to shove her daughter’s arms into the jacket.

Yosef wants to know what all the stuff in the room is for.

“It’s for the Holocaust,” I say.

“Really it’s against the Holocaust,” says my friend.

“That’s right,” I say. “Really it’s anti-Holocaust.”

“What’s the Holocaust?” Yosef asks.

“Well, we’re out!” my friend says. “Have fun!” She strollers her daughter away, and we follow behind them. They go home, and we start walking up the big hill up to our apartment. I point out a car, a street sign, a crack in the sidewalk, a clump of dirt.

“What’s the Holocaust?” asks Yosef, a kid who apparently doesn’t know how to take a hint.

“Well,” I say, “well.”

“Well. Well, well well. Yup. Well. So,” I say, “this is a sad story. Yeah, let’s start with that.”

I’m the sort of parent that takes my kid’s questions as a challenge. “Why does it get dark during winter, Daddy?” he asks. “That’s right, do you even know, Dad? Or are you some sort of chump that can’t explain how seasons work to a kid who sometimes pees on the wall?”

So of course I can’t help myself. The Holocaust will be my biggest parenting win yet.

“It’s a sad story,” I say. “Do you know Irene from shul? Right, so she wasn’t born in New York City. She was born in a place called Germany, and she grew up there and her whole family did too. All of her friends and family. And then one day, the Germans told the Jews that they had to get out. We don’t want you any more! Go, and if you don’t go then we’re going to hurt you.”

“Did they get better?”

“What do you mean.”

“After they got hurt?”

“Ah. Umm, no. They didn’t get better.”

“Why not?”

“Because they hurt them in a way that wouldn’t get better.”

“Anyway,” I continue, “Irene ran away. She went to a different country, and then she came to New York City. But most of her friends and family stayed in Germany, and they got hurt.”

“How does it end?” he asked.

“That’s it. They got hurt, Irene had to run away. That’s why it’s a sad story.”

“But it’s happy for the people who ran away.”

“Well, yeah, except they were still sad about everyone who they loved who didn’t run away and got hurt.”

We thoughtfully pause. A leaf falls from a tree. We hear the sounds of children playing. I get ready for a poignant moment with my son.

“Tell another sad story!” he says. He’s laughing. “Tell it again! Tell another sad one.”

“Another one? Alright. OK, so here’s another sad one: this wasn’t the first time this has happened, and it’s happened other times, and it’s probably going to keep on happening. That’s sad.”

“Ha ha! Tell another sad story!”

My poignant moment is backfiring. Somehow I’ve managed to warm my son’s heart with the story of the Holocaust. I put on my serious face.

“Well, I’m too sad from telling all these sad stories. That’s it for now.”

“Tell another!”

“You know how Pharaoh had slaves? Well there were slaves in America too, and it wasn’t that long ago either.”

“OK,” he says. “Hey, there are three sidewalks here, but they turn into five! There are three here, and then they’re five. And NOW THERE ARE THREE AGAIN! DADDY LOOK. WHY? WHY IS IT THREE ACROSS?”

And it was true. The sidewalk started with three little lanes but then expanded into five, back to three again. And who knows why they made it like that, really. How are you supposed to make sense of something like that?