University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
The Holocaust is one of the most tortuously complex -- not to
mention horrific -- subjects an educator can tackle. Over the span of
twelve years, it is estimated that six million Jews -- including one and a
half million children -- and at least five million other victims (Gypsies,
Poles, other Slavs, Russian Prisoners of War, and other groups) were
gassed, shot, starved, worked or brutally beaten to death. To even begin to
comprehend the "why" behind the "what," "how," "where" and when" of the
history, one needs to examine -- at a minimum -- German history (at
least that related to the 19th century and early 20th century) and the
interconnecting skeins of traditional Christian antisemitism, political
antisemitisim, racial antisemitism, Social Darwinism, extreme nationalism,
industrialism. And that's not to even mention the impact of modernity, the
concept of totalitarianism and the concomitant terror of such a system.
As one wrestles with the aforementioned topics and issues, there
are still the people (perpetrators, collaborators, victims, bystanders and
rescuers) and their actions, the events (e.g., Kristallnacht, the Wannsee
Conference, the St. Louis Affair), the legislation passed and implemented
by the leaders of the Third Reich (some four hundred separate pieces,
including the infamous Nuremberg Laws), the incremental nature of the
strangle-hold that the Nazis slowly but surely applied to the Jews and
others, the decisions made by the Nazis, and the abject brutality and
horror perpetrated across Europe for twelve dark years to piece together
and try to comprehend.
To even attempt to teach one aspect of the above in a way that is
understandable to a five, six, seven or eight year old would be folly. To
do so by telling the "real story" with all of its hatred, abuse, ugliness,
and murderousness would constitute miseducation. And yet, some educators
advocate teaching such history -- or something that approximates it, which is
frequently referred to as "Holocaust education" -- to young children. Further, a
growing number of states are ostensibly committed to incorporating
Holocaust education into the elementary curriculum. Indeed, in an article
published in 1999, "Incorporating Holocaust Education into K-4 Curriculum
and Teaching in the United States," the co-director of The College of Saint
Elizabeth's Holocaust Education Resource Center in New Jersey, touts
Holocaust education for young children. Is this wise? Is this right? Is
this pedagogically sound?
In trying to answer such questions, at least four questions come
to the fore: What is the express purpose of teaching the Holocaust to young
children? Can the Holocaust be taught to such young children? Should the
Holocaust be taught to such young children? Is what is being advocated as
Holocaust education truly Holocaust education, or is it misnamed?
What Is The Express Purpose of Teaching the Holocaust to Young Children?
While acknowledging that many "recognize that the study of the
Holocaust may not seem an appropriate topic for our youngest students," the
author of the aforementioned article reports that "they [certain states,
school districts and individual teachers] believe that there are some
lessons of the Holocaust that can and should be taught at this level"
(Sepinwall, 1999, p. P5). Continuing, she suggests in part that among the
major purposes of teaching about the Holocaust to young children are:
"learning the importance of tolerance and respect for others who are
different, and to acquire and practice skills for resolving conflicts
peacefully and for living together in a spirit of mutual cooperation and
appreciation for the contribution of others" (p. P5). The author supports
her call for what she deems "Holocaust education" (e.g., that which focuses
on the latter components and certain elements of the history itself) by
noting the fact that "American history is filled with examples of nativism,
prejudice, racism, antisemitism, ant-Catholicism, and anti-immigrant
actions and movements" (p. P5). This is incontestable, but does it call for
a so-called "Holocaust education" program (or more aptly, a quasi-Holocaust
education program) that focuses on the components she mentions for such
A primary purpose of Holocaust education should focus on teaching
students the history of the Holocaust. This means a focus on what happened
and why it happened; the key individuals and groups engulfed in the history
and the myriad ways in which they affected and/or were impacted by key
decisions and events; and when, where, why and how key decisions events
were played out, and the ramifications of the latter. If it neglects to
focus on the history, then what is the purpose of Holocaust education? That
is not to say, of course, that there are not lessons to be learned. But
shouldn't the lessons bubble up and out of the history as the students
wrestle with it and come to understand why and how the Holocaust evolved
out of numerous and complex historical antecedents and was driven by an
ideology and those wedded to it? At one and the same time, shouldn't
students learn of the impact of the perpetrators, collaborators, and the
bystanders -- and, most significantly, the fate of the victims?
Can the Holocaust Be Taught to Such Young Children?
Can something as complex as the Holocaust be taught to young
children? Granted, Jerome Bruner (1968) asserted that "...there is an
appropriate version of any skill or knowledge that may be imparted at
whatever age one wishes to begin teaching -- however preparatory the
version may be" (p. 35). Ostensibly, those who advocate "Holocaust
education" at the K-4 level are likely to assert that they are implementing
something that approximates Bruner's position. Possibly they are. But why
call it Holocaust education? Why not "civil education"? Or "prejudice
reduction education"? Or "conflict resolution"?
Some primary and elementary teachers, though, seem to be going a
bit beyond preparatory work and are actually including fragments of the
history into their lessons and/or bringing in Holocaust survivors to speak
to the students Can Holocaust history be taught in this way? Should it be
taught in this way? Certainly, it could be. If it is watered down enough,
if the major concepts such as the intertwining nature of traditional
Christian antisemitisim, political antisemitism and racial antisemitism,
Social Darwinism, extreme nationalism, and industrialism, to mention but a
few, are totally passed over, ignored, or simplified to the nth degree,
then, yes, it can be taught. If the differences between fascist, communist
and democratic states are totally passed over, ignored or simplified, then,
yes, it can be taught. If the complexities of the results of World War I
and Germany's reaction to the Versailles Treaty, the Nazis' false notion of
the "stab in the back" by the Jews, and the ensuing economic downturn in
Germany are totally passed over, ignored, or simplified beyond recognition,
then, yes, it can be taught. If the complexities of how people acted --
depending on the time period, various events, personal and societal
pressures -- are totally passed over, more or less ignored, or grossly
simplified, then, yes, it can be taught. If the abusive actions of the
Nazis -- including beating old man and women, many to death; slamming
babies' heads against walls; lining entire communities of thousands up
aside ditches and mowing them down, row after row, to the point that they
piled up on one another, some still gasping for breath; gassing innocent
men women and children; starving people to the point where they were
walking skeletons; brutally playing with people's emotions, hopes, and
lives and then quashing all of those with a flick of the wrist; if all of
this is totally passed over, largely ignored, or simplified beyond
recognition, then, yes, it can be taught.
Has a straw man been set up here and knocked down? That is, have I
focused on aspects of the history that would probably not be taught to
K-4th graders and overlooked that history which is more "appropriate" for
this age group? I think not. To be fair, though, one must consider those
aspects of Holocaust history which some, if not many, think should be
taught to K-4 students.
To support her position for incorporating "Holocaust education" at
the K-4 level, the author of the aforementioned article cites a 1994 New
Jersey law that reads as follows:
The instruction shall enable pupils to identify and
analyze applicable theories concerning human nature and
behavior; to understand that genocide is a consequence of
prejudice and discrimination; and to understand that issues
of moral dilemma and conscience have a profound impact on
life. The instruction shall further emphasize the personal
responsibility that each citizen bears to fight racism and
hatred wherever that happens. 1
The author goes on to note that the New Jersey law "points to studies
reporting that many students do not know about the Holocaust. New Jersey's
governor and legislators resolved that all children in the state must so
that the lessons of the Holocaust could be learned" (italics added) (p.
The first half of the law (dealing with theories and what causes
genocide) is certainly not germane to the education of K-4 students, while
the second half (dealing with moral dilemmas, conscience, and personal
responsibility) is definitely applicable to the life and education of any
school-age child. Still, the question arises, is the term Holocaust
education really the correct term to apply to the latter components,
especially if the history of the Holocaust is not taught in conjunction
with such goals? Is it really Holocaust education? If so, how so? And if it
is basically preparatory in nature then why -in light of the topics
addressed -- is it preparatory solely for Holocaust education and not
something broader, more inclusive?
Discussing the plethora of books on the Holocaust available now for
use in classrooms, the author of the article states that "Books recommended
for use with K-4 generally do not provide graphic details of the horrors
the Holocaust ...(italics added) (p. P7). Generally? Why isn't it never ?
Indeed, what is the point of ever subjecting such young and tender minds
and hearts to such atrocities? Not only are they unable to place such
horrors in context, but learning such information is likely to result in
nightmares and other psychological distress.
The author notes that while many books "may substitute metaphors or
allegories" (p. P7) for the actual horrors of the Holocaust, "some books
for young children do include stories relating to what happened to children
during the Holocaust (p. P7). More specifically, she states that
They may tell stories of strained and lost friendships,
or of hidden children and their rescuers, or they may deal
more specifically with the Holocaust by describing the lives
of those forced into concentration camps, of families
separated and then reunited, or of children facing life as
survivors after the Holocaust. Still other books encourage
children to see the Holocaust in the context of historic
antisemitism and to remember the victims of the Holocaust
Again, are these appropriate topics for K-4 students? I think not!
Without contextualization, how will such young students even begin to
understand why the children were in hiding, in need of rescue or separated
from their families? Conversely, when such contextualization is provided,
teachers are almost forced to enter the horrific aspects of the Holocaust,
which, again, is inappropriate for children this age. As for teaching
anything about what life was really like in the ghettos, concentration
camps, and death camps, that is obscenely inappropriate. And as for
teaching them about historic antisemitism, many high school students at the
junior and senior levels have great difficulty understanding that torturous
history, so how can anyone expect a K-4 student to do so?
At another point the author asserts, "Increased use of the Internet
links students in classrooms with Holocaust survivors and with other
students who are studying this topic, and allows them to use
Holocaust-related documents" (p. P7). Should such young children really be
engaging in discussion with Holocaust survivors? It is a simple but profound
fact that many junior high school students, not to mention, high
school students, are often overwhelmed by the stories of Holocaust
And what about Holocaust documents? While the author does not
specify what she means by the phrase "Holocaust-related documents," one
surmises that she is either talking about material that deals with the
history in some fashion or another and/or the use of primary documents. No
matter which, neither seems appropriate for use with K-4 students, and that
is due to the simple fact that they are not likely to understand much if
anything they read -- if, in fact, they are even able to read such
The author goes on to mention that a third grade teacher in
Lyndhurst, New Jersey "invites Holocaust survivors to speak to her
students, and discusses newspaper articles concerning the lives of
survivors today" (p. P7). One has to wonder, "What do the survivors speak
about?" If they solely speak about life before or after the Holocaust, does
that have any real meaning for the students? Again, such information would
be decontextualized if the facts of the Holocaust were not discussed. On
the other hand, if the survivors talk about the prejudice and
discrimination they faced in the early years of the Nazis' rise to power,
does it make any sense if the students cannot figure out why the Jews were
targeted? Hopefully, the survivors do not talk about the horrors of the
deportations, slave labor or life and death in the concentration and death
Mention is also made of a fourth grade teacher in Delaware who
teaches her students "about the Nazi plans and actions, [and has them] wear
a Star of David, and... meet and ask questions of a Holocaust survivor" (p.
P7)., This teacher concludes the study by taking her students to the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum where she encourages "encourage them to
discuss what they are seeing and feeling" (p. P7). The same question arises as
above: Are fourth graders -- eight and nine year old children -- capable of
understanding this history and handling the concomitant horror? And, if
teachers believe they are not and thus teach this history without focusing
on key but difficult concepts, as well as the horrific nature of what
really happened, are they teaching the Holocaust? And yet again, if the
teachers are focusing on the horror, should they be doing so?
As for having students wear the star, what is the point? It sounds
like little more than "fun and games." Certainly, the students are not
going to learn of the abysmal degradation and humiliation many, if not
most, Jews felt by being forced to wear such an emblem that resulted in
even more isolation and opprobrium. As the authors of the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum's Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust note:
gimmicky activities "trivialize the importance of studying this history.
When the effects of a particular activity run counter to the rationale for
studying the history, then that activity should not be used (Parsons and
Totten, 1993, p. 7). (For real insight into what it meant for German Jews
to be forced to wear such markings, see Victor Klemperer's I Will Bear
Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941. New York: Random House, 1998.
See particularly, pp. 429, 433-436, 438-439, 441-442, 444-445, 456.)
Should the Holocaust Be Taught to Such Young Children?
So, should Holocaust history even be taught to K-4 students? It
seems as if a resounding no is in order. This is so for three main reasons.
First, the history is far too complex for young to children understand. As
previously mentioned, it comprises a host of extremely complex concepts.
Second, without a fairly solid understanding of the aforementioned
concepts, is difficult for anyone to truly understand why and how the
Holocaust unfolded. Third, it is simply and profoundly inappropriate to
introduce, let alone immerse, such young children to the various horrors of
Is What is Being Touted as Holocaust Education Really Holocaust Education
or is it Misnamed?
Among the many goals and objectives for K-4 Holocaust education
that some tout are the need to: "learn the importance of tolerance and
respect for others who are different" (p. P5); "acquire and practice skills
for resolving conflicts peacefully and for living together in a spirit of
mutual cooperation and appreciation for the contributions of others" (p.
P5); "develop self-esteem" (p. P6); learn how "prejudice hurts everyone and
ways we all (individually as a community, as a nation, and a world) suffer
because of it" (p. P6); "accept that each person is responsible for his/her
actions" (p. P6); "think of ways in which [one] can stand up for what [one]
believes is right and good" (p. P6); be "more kind and respectful toward
others" (p. P7); and "reduce prejudice" (p. P7).
The upshot is, and only with certain key exceptions (e.g., inviting
Holocaust survivors into the classroom, reading Holocaust -related
documents and visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), what is being
described and advocated is not so much Holocaust education as "prejudice
reduction," "bias reduction," or "conflict resolution." All of the latter
are worthy goals for grades K-4. Indeed, when young people are forming
their opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and ways of interrelating with other
individuals and groups, the tender years seem to be an opportune time to
instill in students respect and appreciation for other people.
What is the rationale, though for referring to such educative
efforts as Holocaust education? For the most part, few of the K-4 teachers
are teaching much of anything about the history of the Holocaust. From my
perspective, that is an intelligent decision. As for those who are
attempting to teach this history to such young students, their pedagogical
actions are, at best, problematic.
On another note, the naming of something (an idea, concept,
situation) provides an imprimatur of sorts. Thus, referring to "conflict
resolution" or "prejudice reduction" as Holocaust education, may lead some
to think that it is proper to incorporate actual Holocaust topics/issues
into such pedagogical practices. Indeed, it may lead to a situation in
which such a situation becomes the rule rather than the exception.
That said, if certain educators are so wedded to what they do in
the way of conflict resolution or multicultural education that it should be
deemed "Holocaust education," then it may be better to refer to their
curricular and instructional programs as "Pre-Holocaust Education" or
"Preparatory Holocaust Education," signaling their understanding that the
teaching of Holocaust history is not appropriate at the K-4 level but that
it is to come later in the students' careers (e.g., at the junior high or
high school levels).
So, why not call the pedagogical efforts to teach for tolerance,
respect and a reduction in prejudice for what they are? Is there something
about the phrase "Holocaust education" that is more catchy? At a recent
Holocaust conference a rabbi, who also happens to be a Holocaust educator,
referred to the extreme popularity and misuse of the Holocaust as "Shoah
business." Is that what is at work in referring to prejudice reduction,
bias reduction and conflict reduction as "Holocaust education." If so, it
should not be.
What Does the Future Hold for Holocaust Education in the K-4?
So what does the future hold for authentic Holocaust education at
the K-4 levels? Hopefully, nothing! That said, some wishing to carve out
their own niche or unique place in Holocaust education are bound to forge
ahead with their attempt to implement Holocaust K-4 education. Others,
truly believing that young children "need" to know this history, will
continue to bring aspects of this history into their classrooms. This may
include the use of guest speakers such as Holocaust survivors or the
children of Holocaust survivors (the second generation). It may include
showing some of the more innocuous films, films that verge on the inane,
the historically inaccurate and the watered-down. It may include bits and
pieces of the history -- such as the actions of the rescuers -- but in a
way that it is decontexualized to a state of pointlessness. It may include
posters that make some but not entire sense. It may include story books or
simple allegories that deal with prejudice, discrimination, the bystander
syndrome but not the history of the Holocaust itself. And, of course, the
latter would be fine; only, it is not "Holocaust education," per se.
And eventually, unless many voices are raised in concern about this
issue, the teaching of aspects of this history may actually trickle down to
at least the fourth grade level to a point where many fourth grades
teachers perceive the need to teach this history to their young charges.
This could come about as a result of a collaborative effort -- by
individuals like the author of the aforementioned article and the teachers
she mentions -- to press state departments of education, Holocaust
organizations, and others to recommend or mandate such a situation. That
would be more than a shame; indeed, it would constitute a misuse, if not
abuse, of the educational process.
So, where does this leave us? Especially those of us who care
deeply about children learning to respect, appreciate and interact with one
another in a decent, respectable manner? First, there is a critical need
in this society to introduce and assist young people to appreciate the
beauty of diversity (including the differences and similarities in
individuals, themselves, and groups of people), honor the humanity in each
individual, and avoid hurtful and harmful stereotyping, prejudice, bias and
discrimination against those who are "different" from oneself. Second,
assisting students to differentiate between appreciation and looking askance
at difference, honoring versus denigrating those in different groups from our
own, accepting versus rejecting "the other" have a rightful place in the
primary curriculum. So does the need to assist students to understand the
differences between and among prejudice, bias, stereotyping, and
discrimination, and to understand how and what the individual, family,
and larger society can do to avoid such hurtful and harmful behavior.
Third, all of the aforementioned goals and objectives can be accomplished
by not mentioning, let alone focusing on, something as complex and
horrific as the Holocaust. Fourth, school is a place where children should
be safe and not a place where they are barraged and overwhelmed by
something that is conceptually and developmentally inappropriate or simply
beyond their ken. In essence, it is imperative that teachers and schools
meet the children at their developmental level, challenge them, and not
abuse them. It is as simple and profound as that. The challenge is before
us, all of us.
Bruner, Jerome (1968). Toward a Theory of Instruction. New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, Inc.
Parsons, William S. and Totten, Samuel (1993). Guidelines for Teaching
About the Holocaust. Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial
Sepinwall, Harriet (January/February 1998). "Incorporating Holocaust
Education into K-4 Curriculum and Teaching in the United States." Social
Studies & The Young Learner, pp. P5-P8.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the National Council for
Social Studies ' Social Studies & the Young Learner, September/October
1999, 12(1):36-39. To contact the author, write to him at