My Terror, Not His

I don’t censor books. At least I haven’t yet. I generally feel that if my son Ian finds it at the library and wants to read it, we will read it, and certainly he can look at it himself. There is probably a book out there that would make me re-think this approach, but in his 7 years we haven’t encountered one yet.
I make suggestions, or provide information, to be sure.
“That one looks a little scary to me. What do you think?”
“Do you want me to look at the pictures first? To see if there’s anything too scary?”
Some of this was because of his fascination with history from the age of 2. It’s all fine and well to want to learn about the Civil War, for instance, but some books have photos of dead and wounded soldiers, and thankfully he had no desire for that. The same with his folk tale and fairy tale phase – some of them just had pictures that were creepy, and he can be easily frightened at times. And as I well know, pictures can be traumatizing. Words leave the imagines to the limits of your imagination, but visuals can show you things you never imagined. So, we’d discuss, but I never have flat out told him he is not allowed to read a book.
And so I found myself, when Ian was 4, sitting in our cozy chair at home after our weekly library run, as he presents me with The Cats in Krasinski Square.
At first I don’t realize it’s a Holocaust book, but as we begin to read it dawns on me that it is. I have managed up until now to never read him a Holocaust book. I can feel the terror building inside me – my heart beating faster and harder in my chest. “I can do this,” I think. “I can do this and I have never censored a book. This will not be where I start.”
To be sure we have taken on some tough topics together – his inquisitive nature, strong sense of justice and passion for history have ensured that. Together, by that point, we had read about and discussed slavery, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the Hmong involvement in the Vietnam War and their expulsion from Laos, Pogroms, Harvey Milk, 9/11, Jim Crow…
That he reached the age of four able to articulate why the Hmong were here in Minnesota and not in Laos and the hard road many traveled to get here but had never heard of the Holocaust, was an odd juxtaposition. I do remember it dawning on me that he knew more about other communities’ struggles in many ways than his own, that homophobia and anti-Semitism and the horror that both have brought had not entered his world yet, despite knowing so much about other hard topics.
Yes, part of this was that I did want him to feel that the world was an unsafe place for him, and that I wanted him to understand that people rise above the worst of humanity before he felt vulnerable to it. But also, I just could not abide by him knowing about the Holocaust.
Third grade. I was in third grade. I always arrived early at Hebrew school. There wasn’t enough time to go home in between the end of my public school day and the start of Hebrew school, so I’d walk from my elementary school, cutting through the athletic fields down to Mohegan Drive, past Lyman Road, to my synagogue and arrive early. In the main office, the secretary had a stock of kosher snacks she sold, and I would have a few coins in my backpack to purchase some Little Debbie yumminess, something we never would have had at home. I’d walk past pictures of siblings that hung in the hall, up to my classroom, and eat my snack while I waited. Other friends arrived early as well, and we’d talk and play while waiting for class to start.
But that day I remember being alone. I’m not sure where my friends were at that moment when I saw the pictures. But no one was there as I stopped and tried to take in what I was seeing.
The word DEATH CAMPS was very large. And there was a picture of a…child? I guess he’s a child. He is different than any child I have ever seen. He is so thin his bones are showing and his eyes stick out in a way that is different. He must be sick. That’s it. I know what “death” is of course, and I know what “camp” is – that’s where kids go in the summer. And this boy is sitting on a bunk bed, which is what people sleep on at camp. So this must be a camp for kids who are dying. That’s why it’s a death camp. This boy is dying and this is a camp where he can have fun before he does. Wow. That’s sad.
And I stand there with my Little Debbie Star Crunch in my hand, taking this in. There are pictures like this one lining the hall, and as I process this particular one some of the others start to register in my peripheral vision. There is an old man with his beard being cut off by someone with scissors. There is a naked woman, her arms wrapped around her covering her breasts and genitals but she is definitely naked. And crying. There is a little boy with his arms in the air and a soldier is pointing a gun at him. And there are people…are those people? They are hanging from ropes. Are they dead? What kind of camp is this????? I don’t understand.
When I think back now it’s absolutely unforgivable. Third grade. Alone in a hallway. Trying to make sense of horror that makes no sense.
My own terror at that day is so palpable, that at age 41 as I type this my hands shake horribly. And I know it was done with no malice. I’m a teacher and I know the way we sit and discuss how to teach various subject matter – they must have had a meeting. And at that meeting they didn’t say “Let’s show them pictures that will change their lives forever and terrify them so that they can’t sleep well for years.” No. They would have talked about “never forget” and “never again.” That is the mantra of Holocaust education after all. Never again – and to that end, we must never forget. And at that time people were terrified that when the last of the survivors died, so too would the world’s awareness of the Holocaust. They would have talked about the importance of making sure the children know. No one decided I should see what I saw and learn what I learned and be forever changed alone in a hallway with my Star Crunch in my hand.
But it’s still unforgiveable to me.
It seems like an eternity that I was there alone, but I know that likely it wasn’t. Other kids arrived and we went into the classroom. I remember others commenting with confusion as to what the pictures in the hallway were about. And then the teachers arrived and they explained. We sat in our little rows of desks. I don’t remember her words, but the teacher told us, somehow, about the Holocaust.
I just remember trying to take it in, trying to process what she was telling me, that the world was suddenly so different than I had understood it to be. Being Jewish, which was my favorite thing in the world, was suddenly something that people murdered you for. By the millions. The words I remember running through my head over and over were “I think I’m too young to know about this.” But I didn’t say them aloud.
And it wasn’t done. Now it was time to have a “tour” of those pictures in the hall. We stopped at each one and the teacher explained what was happening in them. And I learn that “death camp” was about as far from what I was guessing as it could be. That “boy” in the picture, was in fact a girl, whose head had been shaven and who had been starved nearly to death and then killed in that camp. And those people hanging from the ropes, they were dead. That was a way to kill someone (who knew?) as was gas coming out of showers. They would trick the people, we learned, by sending them in to shower, but deadly gas would come out instead of water and they would all die.
I was terrified for shower for at least the next year. And forget sleep. To try to close my eyes and not see the pictures seemed impossible. “I think I’m too young to know about this.” “Never forget” wasn’t just a slogan – it was an absolute reality. No need to worry – there’s no chance.
And that is what I bring with me, when I contemplate my son learning about the Holocaust. I did not want him to know. And yet, I don’t sensor books, and here was The Cats in Krasinski Square, which I flipped through and saw nothing inappropriate in. Nothing that would lead me to say to Ian, “It might be a little scary.” Not for him. But I could feel my terror building.
But I got through it. I read slowly, and worked to keep myself calm, tried to quiet my heart, which felt like it might burst from my chest. And I reminded myself that he has not seen the pictures, and he has not been told those things. He IS too young to know about this, but this book has nothing in it that he is too young to know. After all, if you leave out the details, if it is just about a group of people being “mean” to us, then it’s really no different than Haman or Antiochus or Pharoah to him. If it doesn’t feel recent it’s not quite as personal, and though it’s sad, scary and cause for anger, it’s not terrifying.
I tried to remember that this is MY terror, not his.
Other books have followed. There was a story about a girl who meets a woman with a number on her arm and the girl having a rudimentary understanding of what that meant. And there is a section of his Eyewitness Judaism book that talks about it, but of course none of the pictures are anything like the ones that introduced me to the topic. As we sat on the couch reading the book when it was new, a Chanukah present when he was 6, I felt the familiar panic in my chest as he turned the page. But I read it calmly, remembering that he only knows what’s on the page, that the images that play in my head terrifying me are not in his.
The long-dead boy from the death camp picture does not look at him with those eyes as I read these words, as he is looking at me. This is my terror, not his.
I asked about Holocaust education when we toured what is now his school. I didn’t go into the details of my experience, but I did have to ask specifically, at what age is it introduced? How? Are pictures used? I was very comfortable with the answer, and when he came home from Kindergarten after Yom Hashoah, and the word “Hitler” came out of his mouth, my stomach lurched, but I knew it was OK. We talked a bit and it was clear that he was fine and nothing had gone too far. He was soon back to talking about cheetahs and legos, dragons and fairies. He could bathe. He could sleep.
He will learn more as he gets older, certainly. And someday, he will have as many details about the horror as I have, I would imagine. He will read Number The Stars. He will read The Devil’s Arithmetic. G-d please hold him – and me – tight when he reads Night.
But it will be gradual for him. And I am confident that he can “never forget” without being traumatized to make it so.
Because to me “Never again” isn’t just about the Holocaust. It is also about how we teach it.
(Photo: cinderellasg)