When my kids were young, they used to play what they called “the Holocaust Game.” One of them would give a signal, and together, they would clamber as fast as they could into a single bed, piled with stuffed animals. They’d pull the covers over their heads as they waited for an imaginary thump on the door. “You have to be quiet,” they’d whisper to each other. “They’re coming!”
When I first found out my children were doing this, I felt sick with guilt and worry. As someone with many family members lost in the Holocaust—cousins, great aunts and uncles with whom I had been fascinated since childhood—I had talked about the genocide and resulting war often in our house. We’d discussed parallels to the atrocities over family dinners. Had I traumatized my children with my own preoccupation of the Holocaust? Were they irrevocably damaged? Had I done them a disservice by talking about their relatives who refused to leave their comfortable lives in Europe and were, therefore, forced into crowded ghettos, starved, and tortured before they were stripped naked and shot, left for dead in pits? Were they just playing or were they actually afraid that at any minute a neighbor might turn them into the SS? Had I fulfilled or overshot my responsibility as a Jewish mother?
All parents want to protect their children. We teach them to look both ways before crossing the street, to be wary of strangers, to keep their distance from a burning flame.
The talk that Jewish parents have with our children is different, but also involves pulling back a curtain with the risk of disillusionment. It is an ancient talk that we are commanded to engage in by our religious tenets. Our holidays revolve largely around these lessons about identity as well. We regale our children during Passover when we celebrate our ancestors’ escape from slavery, at Hanukkah when we replay the story of their victory over their Greek oppressors, and at Purim when we acknowledge their narrow escape from annihilation at the hands of Haman.
Our Jewish communal memory is long, but, unfortunately, we need not look to our ancient past to feel the effects of hatred. It was only 80 years ago that our families were nearly obliterated. That memory is still fresh. So, when white supremacists storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or march in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us!,” or shoot up the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, or when extremists equate the Star of David with the swastika, we recognize the risk. We are constantly aware of our vulnerability, of the persistent rancor and vitriol spewed against us, of the way others perceive us as different.
The hard truth, which no parent wants to tell a child, is that the world is not always a beautiful place. Our history tells us that horror exists, democracies can fall, economies can fail, and violence can erupt on a scale that defies imagination. Accepting that means accepting that, sometimes, we will be afraid.
Recently, prompted by the fact that I was working on a book about our family history, I thought about my children and their Holocaust play again. This time, I discussed the dilemma with my now adult offspring.
When I asked my children what they remembered about the role of Holocaust remembrance in our household, they said they’d recognized my preoccupation without a doubt. They often rolled their eyes when I made references to it when they were teens, as if it was any other refrain. But, in retrospect, they didn’t think my harping made them overly fearful or paranoid. Rather, they said they felt prepared by it—and not just for dangers faced by Jews. My discussions about our history had taught them to recognize signs of hostility toward any minority group. It made them notice how people can be too complacent to face the dangers happening in front of them. My children learned to use the example of the Holocaust as a tool for empathy.
These reactions may say more about the admirable character of my children than they do about my parenting skills. But they do also make me think that a little paranoia or fear may not be such a bad thing. That in playing their game, my children were simply processing the reality of the world we live in. The risk, however, is that fear with no outlet can be paralyzing. This is why, in addition to teaching my children to be aware, I’ve also made a point of teaching them to act when they see injustice.
I would be remiss as a parent if I didn’t teach my children these truths, just as I would be remiss if I didn’t teach them about the richness of our cultural heritage, our contributions to civilization, the emphasis on scholarship and study, the depth and splendor of the lives their ancestors led while they still had the freedom to do so, and the way this richness sustained them in their darkest hours. I would be remiss because I would, then, not have taught them what it means to be Jewish. I would not have taught them what it means to persevere.
We live in a world of extraordinary challenges—to the climate, to equity, to civil rights, to health, to basic notions of truth and decency, to democracy itself. None of us—of any background—can afford to bury our heads in the sand. If there’s one thing I hope my children have absorbed, it’s that the comforts and privileges they’ve grown up with can be taken away in a moment. People are facing these challenges all over the world every day, and we must be vigilant and willing to fight back against oppressors. Giving the next generations the sense that they have agency, that they can act upon the world instead of accepting what is subpar, can lift them from what could otherwise cause a sense of despair. Telling the truth and sharing our stories can help them realize a better future.
Adapted from Unearthed:A Lost Actress, a Forbidden Book, and a Search for Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust by Meryl Frank. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.