I watched my son gaze curiously at the wall of the synagogue; his eyes falling on a worn and tattered scroll behind a glass display.
We were visiting my parents’ synagogue during the first two two days of Passover, and my son wanted to learn more about the Torah, the hand-scribed scroll of the Old Testament, which hung on the wall. This particular Torah was desecrated by the Nazis during World War Two and was recovered by the Jewish people. This sacred object was very much a symbol of the resilience of my community and a source of pride for the synagogue.
My inquisitive four-year-old examined the tears and burnt markings and wanted to know what happened. He understood the Torah was usually kept in the Aron Kodesh, or holy cabinet, and is used during Jewish prayer service. He wanted to know why this particular Torah was behind glass.
My first thought was to deflect his attention to something else. The Holocaust was an awful time in history and one which triggers in me deep feelings of anger, sadness and hopelessness. How could I tell my child, who still has yet to really learn how horrible humanity can be, there was a time when the Jews were rounded up and murdered simply for existing?
Before I launched into a frightening rant about six million Jews, Hitler and Auschwitz. I paused and considered what my son was asking me. He had a question about a very specific item, the aforementioned Torah. Though it’s connection to the Holocaust is relevant, I knew I could explain what happened using age appropriate language and omitting (for now) the scarier facts of the time.
I told my son a long time ago, there were some mean people who did some bad things to the Jewish people. Refering to the Torah, I went on to say those mean people took things away from the Jewish people because they were special and the mean people knew taking them away would make the Jewish people sad. I told him the Jewish people fought hard and got the Torah back.
We won and the meanies lost. You could use those words to explain most of Jewish history. The timing of my son’s question was not lost on me. Here he was asking me about the Holocaust in the middle of a holiday celebrating the Jews being freed from slavery. This familiar story of hardship and perseverance is what sustains the Jewish people and helps us stay positive even in the darkest times.
Around the same time I was gently introducing the subject of the Holocaust to my child, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer managed to insult every person impacted by the Holocaust by insinuating Hitler’s actions weren’t as bad as those taken by Syrian President Assad. This gaffe outraged me and reminded me just how easily misinformation about the Holocaust can spread, and how teaching our kids about this and other genocides is imperative to their prevention. This doesn’t mean showing preschoolers pictures of mass graves, but it does mean being honest with them about human cruelty and reminding them about human kindness. It means acknowledging terrible moments in our history and building a foundation for righting those wrongs.
My Jewish son will grow to learn more about the Holocaust. He will attend public school in one of the small number of states required to teach the subject. He will hear accounts from the many descendants of survivors among his peers, and, if we are lucky, direct from the survivors themselves. He will find my photos from my visits to Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka and Majdanek and may be inspired to embark on his own journey to those sites of unfathomable suffering.
And, maybe, one day we won’t need to speak of “meanies” anymore.