When I was 9 years old, my Israeli Hebrew-school teacher introduced our class to the Holocaust. A round woman with tight ringlets and a port-wine stain that crept up the side of her neck, she told us unsparingly of Jews packed into ghettos and onto cattle cars, of soldiers sending families to gas chambers and eventually crematoriums. From my seat behind a wooden desk, tears blurred my vision and my nose burned as I tried to push down the sobs fighting their way out.
That night, tucked into bed among my Cabbage Patch dolls, I couldn’t fall asleep. My mother rubbed my back, holding my hot-pink Pocket Rocker stereo close to my ear as it softly played one of my favorite cassettes, Tiffany’s remake of the 1960s hit “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It was of no use.
Tiffany’s sugary song about teenagers starting a secret romance sounded sinister. In my mind, I saw a family running as fast as they could, trying to escape, hearts pounding, whispering frantically to each other about whether they were alone and safe.
The next morning, I stepped into the shower to get ready for school. We lived in suburban comfort: a ranch house at the end of a cul-de-sac, a double vanity connecting his-and-hers dressing areas, a wood-paneled bathroom hung with framed New Yorker covers and lawyer cartoons.
And yet: I looked at the shower head above me, I was shaking as I imagined kids my age expecting to be washed and instead inhaling gas. I didn’t go to school that day; my parents couldn’t persuade me to shower.
Before that day in Hebrew school, I hadn’t noticed the tattooed number lining the arm of an elderly woman who came to services. Nor had I heard my grandfather, in his Yiddish-inflected English, tell stories of liberating a concentration camp as a U.S. soldier — how, just a few years after he fled Poland, he fed skeletal survivors the candy bars my grandmother had sneaked into his care packages. Earlier that year, my brother and I had arrived at Hebrew school to find swastikas spray-painted on our synagogue’s new sanctuary, 30 windows of the religious school building smashed. Our parents’ dismay unspooled inside our station wagon; we absorbed their unease without understanding. Now I knew precisely what message the vandals were sending.
For years I have wondered whether my stark introduction to the Holocaust was normal for the 1980s, or whether I was unusually sensitive to the lesson. My son is 10, and although he knows that World War II saw the murder of millions of Jews, he doesn’t know the details — and I’ve found myself questioning whether he should by now.
My mom remembers calling Joy Schandler, our religious school director at the time, distraught about what I had learned. Recently, I tracked her down to ask whether sharing the specifics of the Holocaust with fourth-graders was part of a well-thought-out philosophy, perhaps to imbue us with a vivid sense of history.
Turns out, it was not.
Schandler is now director of congregational education for the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and has spent a lot of time considering these very questions. In preparation for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Schandler would provide teachers with guidelines for what to share with students in different grades, she told me. But as Schandler recalled, my teacher strayed from the approved material, perhaps because of an Israeli sensibility molded by the large number of survivors living there: If you’re going to talk about the Holocaust, you should be specific.
In the very different context of sex education, the principal of my kids’ elementary school once offered me some thoughtful advice: Answer your children’s tough questions with small pieces of information, one at a time; if they want more, they’ll keep asking, and when they’ve had enough, they’ll stop.
I channeled his advice this summer as we drove through a violent thunderstorm, when my son’s questions hit me like lightning: “What exactly happened on 9/11, Mom?” he asked. “Where were you when it happened? How many terrorists were there? How many people died? Why did they choose America? When will the next terrorist attack happen?”
I answered each question haltingly, trying to balance honesty with what he could understand. I told him about the passengers who took control of the fourth plane before it could hit the Capitol, and about my fear, as I watched the towers collapse on live television, that any other city could be hit next. I told him about a cousin who died in the first tower; I didn’t know him well, but my brother and sister and I had danced a joyous hora at his wedding just a few years before.
This September, my son started middle school and now rides a bus each morning with teenagers whose phones give them access to all the horrors of the world. I think more and more about how much to share — how personal to make our conversations about current events and how they relate to our history. Is it my responsibility to puncture his innocence with details of a scary world, past and present? Or is it enough to trust that by raising him to care about the world around him, he will know what to do with the information when he’s old enough to hear it?
This spring, my son and I traveled with a friend and her son to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, sited at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. A wreath still hangs from the third-floor balcony; the museum has long since removed the square of concrete stained by King’s blood. We pressed our ears to old-fashioned telephone receivers to listen to oral histories from survivors of Jim Crow. When we came to the photo of Emmett Till’s mangled body, I started to usher my son away, but he wanted to look. At the exhibit on the three civil rights workers who were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi, my friend — herself the granddaughter of Belgian Jews who survived the Holocaust — turned to her son. She pointed to the black-and-white poster bearing three photos under the word MISSING: “Do you remember hearing your grandpa talk about his friend Mickey, from college?” she asked her son. “[Michael ‘Mickey’] Schwerner. That was him.”
Maybe, in a time when white supremacists march proudly through cities across America, these sort of personal details matter. Maybe the vivid imagery from history helps create “the fierce urgency of now,” as King once said — the visceral, tangible connection to the morality our children already understand in the abstract.
Months later, I asked my son why he had decided to look at the picture of Emmett Till. He told me that he felt me trying to shield him from seeing the graphic image, yet he had purposefully squirmed out of my grasp to get closer to the docent. “I wanted to be brave,” he told me. “I wanted to see what was wrong so that I can help fix it.”
Jaime Levy Pessin is a writer, gun violence prevention activist and mom living in Brooklyn.