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Teaching the Holocaust to Our Children

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

In order to understand who we are, our children need an authentic exploration of our past, including the Holocaust.

On the day of his death, Moses, the greatest teacher of the Jewish people, adjured us, "Remember the days of the world, understand the years of generation upon generation" (Deuteronomy 32:7).

We are instructed to teach our children about our heritage. We are admonished to remember and understand. We have a history that is rich, deep and definitive. It gives us and our children a sense of pride and identity, a sense of place in time, a connection to the past and a vision for the future.

We begin this education -- along with this sense of rootedness and purpose -- with the learning of Torah. One of the most powerful and aspects of Torah is its stark honesty. The flaws of our patriarchs and matriarchs are laid bare so that we can learn and grow from them. The mistakes of the Jewish people are a cautionary tale for their descendents. There is murder and adultery, aggression and war, persecution and hate. None of it is whitewashed. And we teach it all to our children, adjusting not the events but rather the language, solely in order to further understanding.

If God's Torah is unafraid and explicit, should we be more discriminating? An essential key to understanding ourselves and our nationhood is an authentic exploration of our past. This most certainly includes educating our children about the Holocaust which is a crucial piece of our modern history, our role in the world today and who we are as Jews.

While I do believe in sheltering my children from the 11 o'clock news, that nightly litany of rapes, murders and fires, I feel differently about important historical events and news items that are directly connected to my identity as a Jew. If terrorists strike Jews in Israel, God forbid, I want my children to know. I want them to experience the bittersweet pain of a people whose love for each other crosses international boundaries. I want them to understand the price we pay to be Jews in our homeland.

The survivors of the Holocaust are aging rapidly. Soon there will be no one left to tell their personal story, to show the numbers on their arms, And to explain what it meant to them. There are many reasons to expose our children to the reality of World War II. So they will understand anti-Semitism as a live doctrine, not an historical anachronism. So they will appreciate the forces that shaped the identities of their parents and grandparents, and of themselves. So they will hear the stories of physical defiance -- and of spiritual strength. So they will know of those who maintained their faith during those horrific times - and wonder what happened to their own. So they will explore their own Judaism and connection to the Jewish people more thoroughly.

Being Jewish is a gift. But how can this gift be fully appreciated without recognition of the price paid?

Will our Jewish heritage mean more to our children if they see how many people died solely because of their Jewish identity? Not necessarily. But it should give them pause. Why were we hated? Do we have something special that others want? If my great-grandparents were persecuted because of their Judaism, shouldn't I at least give it a second look? What depth of meaning and purpose is there that leads to such sacrifice?

Being Jewish is a gift. Being able to live a Jewish life is a gift. How can this gift be fully appreciated without recognition of the price paid?

Throughout history we have continually demonstrated our desire to die as the oppressed rather than adopt the heinous behavior of our oppressors. A friend of mine whose father was a survivor, commissioned a study of him and his peers. There was only one question asked (I'm paraphrasing), "If you had the opportunity to choose and experience the Holocaust all over again, would you rather be the vicious but powerful Nazi or the persecuted, humiliated, and targeted Jew?" They responded, "The Jew." They'd rather die with a high moral code than live by a lower one.

Anti-Semitism as expressed in the Holocaust is a significant component of our identity. We need it for compassion, for appreciation. Our identity, our understanding of ourselves, our history is incomplete without it. We rob our children of a piece of themselves when we "spare" them.

But it's only a piece. It's only with a sense of the joy and meaning available to us can we continue to live as Jews. Only with the vision and hope granted to us by the Almighty can we push past the pain. And only through passing these ideas on to our children can they see the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in some kind of context. With a sense of greater meaning, they can embrace their heritage and not run from it.

We do our children a disservice if we shield them from the reality of life as Jews, if we cut them of from the pain experience by their grandparents 60 years ago or by their peers in Israel today.

But we do them a deeper and more profound disservice if we paint a gloomy, depressed picture of Jewish life. Jewish life is filled with happiness and celebration - from the weekly rest of Shabbat, to the joyful feasting of Sukkot to the freedom of the Passover Seder. From the Bris to the Bar Mitzvah, to the wedding to the Bris. And if there's tremendous shared pain, the shared joy is even more powerful. That's the true gift of being Jewish. Joy and a relationship with the Creator of the world. That's what we really want our children to appreciate.

And through learning and understanding history, we also see God's hand in our lives, guiding us as individuals and as a nation, slowly leading us to the ultimate redemption. We see ourselves as part of a grand plan. We don't take our trivial difficulties as seriously and we have perspective on our role and the role of our people. We are connected to the importance of the Jewish people while simultaneously freed of the bonds of individual ego. We know our place.

Let's not be afraid to teach our kids about the bleakest moments of our history, as long as we also blind them with the light of our ongoing joy.

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