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Six ways to teach our children about the Holocaust

A while ago, I wrote a newspaper story on a new book about the Holocaust--a highly detailed, emotionally wrenching 818-page history of the Eastern European shtetl (village) of Eishyshok in Lithuania--There Once Was a World (Little, Brown & Company, 1998).

For 900 years, Jews had lived in Eishyshok, going about their daily lives--cooking, baking, farming, praying, buying, selling, learning, singing, weeping, laughing, marrying, bearing children, dying. It was often a hard life. Eishyshok was at a crossroads and, throughout its history, was conquered and reconquered by invading armies. Also, the Jews of the shtetl, who made up about two thirds of the village populace, had to withstand violent pogroms, land confiscation, anti-Semitic legislation, and other restrictions. Nonetheless, they endured and flourished. Theirs was a rich, communal life, an existence filled with people, conversation, small-town controversies, and the tight bonds of a shared faith.

Then, during World War II, nearly every Jewish man, woman, and child in Eishyshok was murdered. Most of the killings took place over a two-day period in September 1941, when 3,500 of the shtetl's Jews and another 1,500 from the neighboring area were marched to the Eishyshok cemeteries and shot by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. No more than a couple hundred of the village's Jews survived those massacres, and nearly all of those were killed in the ensuing three years by the Germans or, later, by anti-Semitic Polish partisans.

Today, no Jews live in Eishyshok.

The book about Eishyshok and its fate was written by Yaffa Eliach, who was born in the shtetl and was there, a 4-year-old in hiding, when the massacres took place. Three years later, after the Germans had fled, her family returned to their home, only to be attacked by Polish partisans who killed Yaffa's mother and baby brother before her eyes.

Her book is a testament to the once-vibrant Jewish community that had thrived for so long in Eishyshok. Another testament by Eliach is a display of nearly 1,500 photographs of the people of the shtetl, going about their daily lives in the years before the war--one of the most powerful exhibits at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. These photos are among the 10,000 that Eliach gathered in nearly two decades of research.

So I wrote the story about the book and the shtetl. It was published. And then I got an envelope in the mail with no return address. When I opened it, there was a handwritten note inside, reading only: "Holocaust?"

Included was a printed tract that purported to give more than 60 proofs that the Holocaust hadn't happened. (There was, in addition, another tract that argued that the national holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. should be abolished.)

My first reaction was to shrug off the mailing as the work of a kook. After all, how could any reasonable, rational, thoughtful person pretend to believe that the Holocaust hadn't happened? That 6 million Jews and millions of Gypsies, homosexuals, retarded and mentally ill people, and others deemed unfit for life were murdered with chilling efficiency and for no purpose but hate?

My second reaction, however, was to pause. When I interviewed Yaffa Eliach for the newspaper story, she'd mentioned the attempts by Holocaust-deniers to discredit her, and I'd found some of their calumnies on the Internet. And I knew that Eliach's wasn't an isolated case.

Perhaps it is the sheer horror of the Holocaust that makes some people want to deny it. Maybe it is a feeling of guilt, however indirect. Maybe it is simply another form of anti-Semitism.

No matter. The effort to erase the Holocaust from the world's memory is an ongoing one, and one that is far from inconsequential. You only need to look at how the Holocaust happened--how small sins were permitted to grow into large ones and then into gargantuan ones--to realize that the threat posed by the deniers of the Holocaust needs to be taken seriously.

And how best to meet this threat? Through education.

Children need to be told about the Holocaust. They need to understand what happened and how it happened. And they need to learn this not just in school but, even more important, in their homes--from their parents.

One particularly helpful book is The Spirit That Moves Us (Tilbury House, 1997), a literature-based study guide for teaching the Holocaust, by Rachel Quenk. Prepared for children in grades five through eight, the book uses excerpts from novels and autobiographies to illustrate and prompt discussion of prejudice, diversity, and community. (Another book of the same title, by Laura Petovello, is also available for children from kindergarten through fourth grade.)

Also of great assistance is a detailed study guide prepared by the Holocaust Museum (available on the Internet at The guide notes that the study of the Holocaust is a good way of examining moral issues, investigating human behavior, and promoting good citizenship.

For Catholics and other Christians, it's something more--a call to repentance. It was our church and our ancestors who fostered the anti-Semitism that made the Holocaust possible.

"Despite [Christianity's] origins within the Jewish community, a rift gradually developed between Christianity and Judaism," wrote Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in a 1991 column in the Chicago archdiocesan newspaper, The New World.

"For their part, Christians began to think that, because many Jews did not recognize Jesus as the expected Messiah, God had rejected them and replaced them with Christians in his plan of salvation. The next step was to accuse all Jews of guilt for Jesus' death. From these theological distortions emerged false charges of Jewish ritual murders and profanation of the Eucharist. For many Catholics, anti-Semitism, unfortunately, appeared to have a solid theological basis."

When it comes to the Holocaust, Bernardin noted, "We tend to place all the guilt on the godless Nazis and to overlook Christian treatment of the Jews through much of church history and the complicity of some Catholics in the Holocaust itself."

But recognizing the church's complicity in past anti-Semitism isn't enough. Nor is it enough just to try to avoid such prejudice in the future.

What Christians are now called to is something more active--the development of solidarity with Jews.

Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic leaders and theologians have taught that church members have a duty to work to build bonds of friendship and understanding with Jewish people. And not just to know Jewish people--but to cherish them.

Indeed, in 1993, Pope John Paul II wrote, "As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing for the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to each other." (This is also the message that runs through a collection of essays and addresses on Jewish-Christian dialogue by Bernardin, A Blessing to Each Other, published by Liturgy Training Publications.)

In this context, the effort to teach children about the Holocaust must go beyond the historical facts of the brutality, killings, and hate. It must recognize the common heritage of Christians and Jews, their centuries of estrangement, and their need for a common future of acceptance and affection.

And here, for parents and teachers, are some suggestions of how to begin these lessons:

* Study up. The first thing is to learn about the Holocaust yourself. This doesn't require an immense amount of study or research. A good encyclopedia will give a solid enough summary of the facts. And this is a subject that won't rest. Once you learn something about the Holocaust, you'll want to know more and more.

* Keep it simple. Teaching children about the Holocaust is the same as teaching them about any sensitive subject, like sex or death. You want to give them as much as they can handle without overwhelming them. Listen to them. They'll signal you about what they want to know and what questions they have. And they will have questions. The story of the Holocaust turns everything they've been taught on its head.

* Focus on the Jews as people. There is a danger of getting caught up in the monumental carnage of the Holocaust--of being overawed by the numbers and seeing the Jews (and the others) as simply victims. As There Once Was a World so eloquently shows, the Jewish people who were killed had led the same sort of everyday lives of work, play, and prayer that we do. The things we have in common with them are much greater than any differences of culture or religion or language. They weren't born to be victims, just as we weren't. They had as much right to keep living as we do. They, in a real way, were us.

* Don't demonize. Another temptation is to turn the Holocaust into a morality play with the Nazis taking the role of evil incarnate. That's too easy; it's scapegoating.

The hard fact is that the Nazis represented a small part of the German war machine. The Holocaust couldn't have happened without the help--often enthusiastically given--of the average German soldier, the collaborators among the various conquered peoples, and the general public. Average people, like you and me, took part in the Holocaust. Average people, like you and me, guarded the prisoners, kept the records, ran the trains, fired the guns, delivered the gas, revealed Jewish hiding places, used slave labor in their factories, ransacked Jewish homes, and stood by, knowing or working hard not to know, as all this happened.

It's too easy to blame it on the Nazis and leave it at that. Just as the Jews who were killed were just like us, those involved in the killings were also just like us. This is the hardest lesson of the Holocaust. We need to guard against it happening again to the Jews or to another people. Even more, we need to guard against letting ourselves get caught up in carrying out or permitting someone else--by standing by without protest--to carry out a new Holocaust. That may seem farfetched, but it isn't.

* Put the Holocaust in perspective. The Holocaust was not unique. There have been other holocausts through history and in the 20th century--in Cambodia, Bosnia, Armenia, the Soviet Union. In the 1800s, the national policy in the United States toward the Native Americans was a version of genocide. "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," said Gen. Philip Sheridan. For thoughtful discussions of the worst of the modern holocausts, see Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide (Westview Press, 1997), edited by Alan S. Rosenbaum.

* Treasure diversity. For parents, for teachers, the Holocaust represents a horrible lesson to teach. Yet, at its heart is a hope. The way to avoid holocausts in the future--the way to best remember those who were murdered--is to fight against the temptation of an "us-and-them" attitude. The Holocaust happened because the Jewish people were identified as "them" and because those doing the killing were seen as "us" by the average citizens of Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and other nations.

This "us-and-them" attitude is at the root of an entire range of social sins, of which genocide is only the most terrible. Racial prejudice, for example, can only happen because African Americans or Asians are seen as "them." Government policies that segregate the poor from the affluent and penalize them for their poverty can only occur because those poor are seen as "them." The battles of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland are about "us and them," as are the fighting in the Balkans, gay-bashing, sexism--all those things that drive a wedge between people.

Ultimately, the only way to avoid holocausts in the future--and all the smaller, less lethal holocausts--is to stop thinking of "us and them" and start seeing that it's just "us."

Those were our sisters and fathers being shot at the Eishyshok cemeteries, and it was our brothers pulling the triggers. We need to recognize our kinship. "Us-and-them" thinking is born of fear. "Us" is born of trust. We need to be courageous enough to risk seeing, experiencing, and being enriched by the kinship we all share. We need to be brave enough to acknowledge that we are like--not better than--those who are different.

The artwork on these pages was created by the sixth grade students of teacher Anne Williams. To see more children's art on the Holocaust, visit

PATRICK T. REARDON is a feature writer for the Chicago Tribune and author of Daily Meditations (with Scripture) for Busy Dads (ACTA Publications, 1995) and Starting Out: Reflections for Young People (ACTA Publications, 2000).
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Title Annotation:Books by Patrick T. Reardon and Rachel Quenk evaluated; Holocaust must be remembered and studied to counter effects of deniers
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
Previous Article:No forgiveness, no future.
Next Article:This time it's personal.

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