Telling our Children about the Holocaust

Presented by David P. Stern 1 May 2005 at congreg. Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt, Maryland

A discussion around the book
Behind the Secret Window
A memoir of a Hidden Childhood during World War Two
By Nelly   S   Toll , xiii + 163 pp., Dial Books1993


      We have just ended Passover, a celebration of liberation from slavery. One focus of this holiday was telling our children about our people's miraculous redemption; "And thou shalt tell thy son on that day...etc. etc."

    Now we have reached another commemoration, of more recent events, when miracles did not occur, and six million innocent people died. That commemoration is forever linked to Passover by the anniversary of the final uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, and here, too, is a story which deserves to be passed from generation to generation. But how?

        Some people avoid doing so altogether. Their attitude is--we live in a peaceful democracy, which accepts Jews as part of mainstream society. Why alarm our daughters and sons with memories of atrocities which took place 60 years ago, on another continent? Why teach them fear, when they see nothing frightening?

    All this is valid. Yet we still should pass the story to them, because--and I will come back to that later--the memory of the Holocaust is not for Jews alone to remember. Open any TV newscast: cruelty and violence, by one people against another, is still widespread in the world. Even the US has its evil undercurrent, though it is held in check by the decency of the majority, and by the fact that life here is pretty good. But in poor, overcrowded countries, terrible things are still happening. Have you seen "Hotel Rwanda"?

    So we do tell our children, and two questions immediately arise.

    One is--how do you tell? You can take them to the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, but be aware, that is a contrived setting. Much too clean, for one thing. Also, some of the graphic descriptions of mass murder can be rather frightening. You could also let them see the movie "The Pianist. " Or you could give them some appropriate book to read.

        One book usually offered to young readers is "The Diary of Anna Frank," a story with special powers because it was written by a teen-age girl, hiding from the Nazis in Holland--an expressive and articulate teen-ager who, unfortunately, was betrayed and did not survive. "The Story of Anna Frank", by the way, was performed last month on stage, in the Laurel Mill Playhouse, and perhaps some of you saw it there.

    Here I want to tell you about another book, titled "Behind the Secret Window.". It was written by Nelly Toll, a young girl who also hid from the Nazis--in the city of Lwow (Lvov) in the Ukraina-Poland borderland, and she did survive. Nelly was 6 years old in 1941 when the Nazis invaded, and she ended up hiding with her mother in the home of a Christian family, in a room where a bricked-up window provided a hiding place. The original edition appeared in 1993 and is out of print (though used-book dealers on the internet have it), but a paperback edition also exists.

    Any Jew in Lvov, who did not try to escape or hide, was essentially doomed. But even if you tried to escape, you rarely succeeded. When the Russian army finally drove the Germans out of the city, only Nelly and her mother were left of a large family. What makes this book special are two things. First, like Anna Frank, Nelly kept notes, which became a regular diary after she turned 8: all these helped her reconstruct this book. Interestingly, in her notes she replaced words like "Jews" and "ghetto" with others, just in case some stranger glanced at the writing by accident.

    And second, to relieve her isolation, Nelly drew colorful pictures, which are all reproduced. They are a wonderful testimony to the resiliency of a child's mind. They do not portray the frightening reality around her, but the world which she missed--open fields and streets, the company of other girls, her absent father, flowers, a big pet dog and so forth.

    Her words however clearly reflect that reality, as seen by a child's eye. She does not comment the way an adult might perhaps do--she just tells what she saw, people she encountered, conversations she overheard. She tells about narrow escapes--once she, her mother and two friends ran into the forest just when Germans on a raid approached the village: the four listened to shots and screams, then returned to discover they were the only survivors. She tells about forbidden excursions to the city, about hate by children her age, just because they knew she was a Jew. Throughout it all, you can feel the tension. The Christian couple which sheltered her and her mother were simple, decent people--no intellectuals--and the book tells their story, too.

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    "Behind the Secret Window" is one way to make your children understand what happened during the Holocaust. They should read "Anna Frank," too--every story is different. But after they have read such stories, they could ask you a second, harder question: "what should we learn from all this? "

    The simplistic answer, frequently given, is "as Jews, we should never feel safe." Anti-semites are always around, or as the Haggadah put it, "in every generation they rise against us to destroy us." The US may now seem friendly, democratic and safe--but in Europe, too, many Jews originally felt safe. As Nelly's grandfather Henryk said, soon after the invasion, "The Germans are too civilized; it will pass."

    It is a debatable answer, but in any case, young people should also be aware of a broader meaning. The six million in Europe were singled out because they were Jewish--all true. But genocide--the deliberate extermination of people who are different in some way--genocide has existed elsewhere too, and it still does, directed against many other groups, too. If you have seen "Hotel Rwanda," or before that "The Killing Fields" about Cambodia, or have read about the mass murder of Armenians by Turks (the anniversary of its start, on 24 April 1915, was observed a week ago), about the extermination of Gypsies by the Nazis, or if you watch the news from Darfour.. .. then you should know.

    It may get worse in the next generation. The world is getting crowded, especially among nations whose people are poor, uneducated and follow fundamentalist beliefs. We are all passengers aboard a crowded lifeboat, and when conditions get desperate, who will be next tossed overboard? That, too, would be a Holocaust--vicious, murderous, racist. And even if this time Jews are not its victims, our children, who will inherit the future, may well ask: can it be prevented?

    I have no honest answer, but at least, we should recognize the problem. The world-wide spread of terrorism which we witness is not a replay of the Nazi menace. It looks more like an expression of desperation, by young people growing up in crowded poverty, with no prospects for the future, people who might wish to kick us in the teeth simply because they see us living in comfort, while they suffer.

    You may remember that during the Holocaust, people of the world were divided three ways, not two: some were the victims, some were the perpetrators, but the great majority declined to be involved--even among nations which fought the Nazis. Or maybe they should be divided four ways, if you count the small number of people who actively helped the victims, like the Wojtek (Woytek) family which saved Nelly Toll and her mother. As Jews, we have already learned one lesson, never allow ourselves to become victims again . But can we allow ourselves to remain uninvolved?

    One special area of desperation is Arab Palestine. In the Gaza strip alone, 1.3 million Arabs live on an area mostly covered with sand, an area with meager rainfall and no industry. It is probably within Israel's power to exile them all or even kill them--and some Israelis in fact recommend what they refer to, euphemistically, as a "transfer" of the Arab population, across the borders.

    I do not think that will not happen--for one thing, because as Jews we carry the memory of persecution of our own people, and of the Holocaust. Instead, right now, Israel is surrounding those Arabs with concrete walls and barbed wire, and lets them run their own life inside their ghetto. Of course, it is doing so to protect its own people. Unfortunately, this is just a temporary answer, and with the high Arab birth rate, the poverty and desperation in that ghetto can only get worse.

    Some day Israel, America and the rest of the world must face up to that problem--and to others like it, because there exist places even worse than Arab Palestine. We Jews--not just through our association with Israel, but also because we know how terrible things can get--we ought to involve ourselves, to help prevent the horror from happening again.

    And that is what we should tell our children.



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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 3 May 2005