Mama Madison: Talking with kids about the Holocaust

Works of art are a helpful entry point

Growing up in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Washington, D.C., discussions of the Holocaust permeated many aspects of my life. The Shoah was definitely a major touchpoint of my formal religious education; in Hebrew school, I learned of Hitler's atrocities not only from textbooks and lectures, but also from interactions with the survivors who regularly visited classes to share their painful, personal stories. Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank were heroes in our house; Night and Frank's diary were prominently displayed on both my parents' and grandparent's bookshelves. And even on the most banal of home front issues, Nazi war crimes weighed heavy. To this day, my father has refused to buy either a German made car or dishwasher.

My choice of childhood reading was also influenced by a hatred of Hitler. A favorite book in fifth grade was Judy Blame's classic, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself . And while I didn't, as did the book's title character, grow up fearing Nazi war criminals could be lurking around every corner, I sympathized with Sally's borderline obsession with exposing Mr. Zagorsky's supposed homicidal past.

But as huge a shadow as the Holocaust cast over my youth, I've struggled with the best ways to introduce the incredibly difficult theme to my own children. I want them to know about, honor and to remember the six million victims, but I haven't wanted them to be feel scared, or worse yet, scarred. Shock and fear no longer seem like the best teaching tools for ensuring, the idea of "never again."

And while I am certainly no expert when it comes to the best way to talk with kids about the holocaust, I do know the arts have definitely been a powerful part of helping me to comprehend the tragedy. I am pretty sure I was still in elementary school the first time I saw the 1959 Anne Frank film starring Millie Perkins. In eighth grade we viewed the deeply disturbing Night and Fog, an early Holocaust documentary, as a part of a religious school retreat. And even as an adult, movies like Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List have left their indelible impressions.

So it was with great hope that I took my 10-year-old daughter to the Children's Theater of Madison's production of And Then They Came For Me, this past weekend at the Overture Center. I was looking to the theater to serve as an entry point from which to launch an age-appropriate discussion on one of the darkest events of the 20th century.

The production, a multimedia work by playwright James Still, interweaves documentary-style interviews with survivors Ed Silverberg (aka Helmuth, or "Hello") and Eva Geiringer Schloss with live actors recreating scenes from their lives under Nazi occupation in Europe. Both Hello and Eva were friends of Anne Frank in Holland, and the narrative allows us to bear witness to such events as Hello's daring escape from the Nazis and subsequent border crossing to Belgium. And we watch as two actresses--portraying 15-year-old Eva and her mother--reenact the horrifying and dehumanizing process of being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in May of 1944. The play, which runs through this weekend, is moving and thought provoking, forcing members of the audience, many as young as my daughter, to grapple with the question of how this could have happened.

That question is perhaps best answered by the quote that inspired the title of the play. The words, written by German clergyman Martin Niemoller and included in the program, have haunted me from my youth. They are the same words that hung on the bulletin board of my father's studio for as long as I can remember.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

I am thankful this play gave me the ideal opportunity to begin the Holocaust dialogue with my daughter. Because no matter how hard things may be to talk about, keeping silent is never the answer.

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