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.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (Near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.

Mama Madison: What a mother fears most

All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.

Mama Madison: Summer stress solved by yoga

The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.

Mama Madison: The greatest fans of road repair

Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.

Mama Madison: The alarm sounds

As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.

Mama Madison: My summer book list

For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.

Mama Madison: Watching talent grow

Last week, for the first time, I made my way up to one of the open gallery nights during Madison West's Fine Arts Week, the school's annual showcase for all things creative. The scope of the event is huge, with nearly 1,600 students participating, and the quality of the presented works is phenomenal. It's almost as if the school had been lifted off its perch on Regent Street and traveled back in time to Belle Époque Paris.

Mama Madison: Writing time at Olbrich

If you have aspiring authors in your house, this summer offers a fabulous opportunity for them refine their writing skills. For its second summer, the Greater Madison Writing Project, in partnership with Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is sponsoring two week-long camps in August for young writers entering grades 3-8.

Mama Madison: When UW-Madison's semester is over, the kids want out too

There are lots of benefits to living in a college town. First and foremost, there is always something going on -- a lecture, a film series. Maybe even a protest, if you're lucky. And since becoming a Madisonian, I, for the first time in my life, find myself interested in college football.

Mama Madison: Another amazing talent show

My passion for the talent show clearly runs deep, but I'm more than just a fangirl. This year marked my second as one of the "Ziegfelds" of the Follies, Hamilton's annual showcase for singers, musicians, dancers and other varied forms of entertainment. Trust me, when you are part of the spectacle's "producing/directing" team you get a new-found appreciation for how hard the kids worked to get up on stage.

Mama Madison: Preserving children's stories

My daughter, who turned twelve just this past week, is not legally "of age" when it comes to social media. But I guess, in many respects, especially in those that involve screens, I am a permissive pushover. I've allowed her join some networks.

Tenting tonight? Not so fast -- take the time to prepare for the first family camping trip

What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar. Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.

Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.


Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!