How Do You Explain the Holocaust to a Child?

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When and how should you talk to your children about the Holocaust? Librarians and teachers agree that introducing kids to the Holocaust and to the magnitude of evil human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings does not begin with the horrifying details and images of genocide. Instead it begins with the teaching of tolerance for those who are different from us.

April 19 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, our nation’s annual commemoration honoring the victims of genocide during the racist Nazi reign of terror in Europe during World War II. The theme designated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for this year’s observance is “Choosing to Act: Stories of Rescue.” The emphasis is on remembering those who risked their lives to save others.

Janis Levine, longtime elementary teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, advises, “A study of the Holocaust in the early childhood years can help prepare children for a more in-depth study later on in the upper grades, but it is important with young children not to dwell on the atrocities, as this may frighten the children or may be beyond their level of understanding.”  She recommends, for example, Phoebe Gilman’s Something from Nothing, a tale of growing up with respect for the past.

Hazel Rochman, children’s literature expert and a former editor for Booklist magazine, says she is often asked, “Should we be giving this depressing kind of material to kids? Isn’t it too disturbing?” In response, she says, “There are no easy answers, but what I do think is that we need to give young people many kinds of reading.” What they don’t need is “long harangues and sermons about what is good for them.” Rochman believes that “young people want to know about serious issues too. About the evil out there and in all of us. ‘What would I have done?’ is always the question.”

In her book for young readers, Bearing Witness: Stories of the Holocaust, Rochman begins by explaining that “the Holocaust was the deliberate, systematic massacre of the Jews of Europe by Hitler and Nazi Germany. Nearly six million Jews were murdered, only because they were Jews. Five million Gentiles, including Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russians, Polish Catholics, and political prisoners, were also killed.”

Like Rochman, Levine advises a multicultural approach with stories that instill tolerance and acceptance of differences—stories of human courage, loyalty, and the struggle for dignity.

In many ways, introducing children to the brutal facts of the Holocaust is like introducing them to the history of slavery in the United States. Teachers and parents are rightfully concerned that as social evils and the tyrants that fuel them recede into history, they become little more than stereotypes, especially for youngsters, for whom “ancient history” is pretty much everything that happened before they were here to observe it.

“As with slavery, escape and rescue stories are easier to talk about than the facts of the atrocities,” says Rochman. "But of course every crime isn't a holocaust. Bearing Witness isn't for young children, more for middle readers and up. And with such disturbing stuff, young people need to talk about it with an adult.” 

“You can’t hide it; you can’t just drop it. It’s something that every child should know about and read about, but understanding is gradual, learning takes time,” says Levine.


Recommended Reading @ your library


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme

Books for children:

Preschool or Kindergarten:

Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust
by Eve Bunting

Grades 1-2:

The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm
by David A. Adler

Grade 3:

Twenty and Ten
by Claire Huchet Bishop

Grade 4:

Number the Stars
by Lois Lowry

Grade 5-6:

The Devil’s Arithmetic
by Jane Yolen


LEONARD KNIFFEL is publisher of the @ your library website at the American Library Association. He was on the editorial staff of American Libraries from 1988 to January 2011, the last 14 years as editor in chief.

Article illustration:
Pictured from the left are: Henri Zwierszewski, George Michaelson, Father Bruno, Willy Michaelson, Henri Fuks and Willy Sandorminski. Father Bruno (Henri Reynders, 1903-1981) was a Benedictine monk from Belgium who presided over a vast rescue effort that protected the lives of between 300 and 400 Jews, most of them children, during the German occupation.