The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My father told me why even children need to learn about terrible things: So that we don’t let them happen again

A view of the former Dachau concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, on May 1, 2015. (Joerg Koch/Getty Images)

Patti Davis is the author, most recently, of “Floating in the Deep End: How Caregivers Can See Beyond Alzheimer’s” and the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

I was about 9 when I learned that millions of people had been tortured and murdered simply because they were Jewish. My tutorial began with an innocent question.

There was a woman who visited my mother frequently who had long, flowing black hair and sad eyes. One day she had on a sleeveless summer dress, and I saw numbers etched on her forearm. I asked her what they were.

“I got them in the camps,” she said and turned her eyes away from me. I was confused, as the only camps I knew about were the ones where you slept in sleeping bags and learned to row a canoe. My mother overheard and said something about explaining it to me later.

Later turned out to be an evening when my 3-year-old brother was already in bed and my father set up the movie projector, as he usually did to show us home movies. That night my parents were very serious, even nervous, and my father explained to me that he was going to show me something that happened before I was born — something that would upset me. But I had asked about the numbers on their friend’s arm, and he wanted me to know that a terrible thing had happened in the world.

“It must never happen again,” I remember him saying, something he repeated several times that evening.

What played on our home screen was director George Stevens’s footage of U.S. soldiers going into Dachau to rescue survivors of the Holocaust. The images from the concentration camp are seared into my brain still — emaciated faces and skeletal bodies, eyes too haunted to cry. And the piles of bodies of those who didn’t survive the genocide over which Adolf Hitler presided.

Today, there is a battle being waged against children learning what I was taught at a young age, a lesson that has helped shape my conscience and my priorities. Books are being banned in U.S. schools, and states are crafting legislation to stop teachers from talking about the wounds of the United States’ racial history. It doesn’t make sense to me. How can we grow if we don’t learn from our most serious mistakes?

That night long ago, my father didn’t play the film for long. My memory is that he turned it off when I began crying. Patiently, he explained to me that we have to know what went on in the world so we can make sure that things like this never happen again. I took from his words a clear message that it could happen again — that we weren’t safe from evil. He told me bits and pieces of their friend’s story, how her mother tore small pieces of bread in half, giving her daughter a few extra bites of food. How they were split up and sent to different camps on boxcars and somehow after the war managed to find each other.

Over the years when I have told people about this, a few have commented about how young I was. Some have asked whether it was wise for my father to show such a thing to me at 9 years of age. I don’t know how to respond to that. Maybe I was too young. But I was imprinted at that early age by the lesson he wanted to impart — that evil in the world will always rise up, and it must be stopped every time it does.

History stretches out behind us, and we must have the courage to stare it down, to decide what never can be repeated.

I don’t understand parents not wanting their children to know about the dark passages of history. I don’t understand banning books that open up those dark passages. How will we raise children to push back against the cruelty of antisemitism and racism if they don’t know where in history those cruelties were rooted? If you didn’t know that the hundreds of people marching in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us” were echoing the Holocaust, you might not be appropriately sickened by it.

And that’s how history repeats itself.

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