February 25, 2008
Big City

When President Nicolas Sarkozy mandated recently that every French fifth grader would learn the life story of a French child who died at the hands of the Nazis, the proposal didn’t exactly generate the overwhelming gratitude he might have expected from Holocaust educators in his country.

“You cannot inflict this on little ones of 10 years old,” Simone Veil, the honorary president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust, told the Web site of the magazine L’Express. “The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear.”

As someone who attended Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue in Westchester County during the late 1970s and early ’80s, I couldn’t help wondering what Ms. Veil would have made of the Holocaust education provided for Jewish children then.

It wasn’t unusual, at the time, for kids in Jewish day schools and after-school programs to be expected to absorb a lot more than one tragic narrative. Or maybe, in some ways, a lot less: Rather than being asked to identify closely with the life and death of an individual child, many of us were shown films of mass murder, piles of bodies in camps, so much graphic detail that our nascent faculties of analysis froze.

I can still remember the trembling rage of my Hebrew school teacher when two fellow students giggled about some private girlish intrigue, retreating into the familiar as images from the camps flickered across the screen. We were spoiled and overprotected, the teacher railed, all of which was surely true. Also, if I recall correctly, we were about 11.

Within the vast body of Holocaust literature a tiny subset has emerged, writings about Holocaust education trauma. In his 2006 novel, “Absurdistan,” Gary Shteyngart, who attended a Jewish day school in Queens in the ’80s, included a parody of a white paper that proposed to fend off interfaith marriage by using the Holocaust, which, “when harnessed properly as a source of guilt, shame and victimhood, can serve as a remarkable tool for Jewish continuity.”

In the subsection “Holocaust for Kidz,” the paper’s author wrote, “Studies have shown that it’s never too early to frighten a child with images of skeletal remains and naked women being chased by dogs across the Polish snow.” And in Shalom Auslander’s first collection of short stories, “Beware of God,” a character offers what he calls “Holocaust Tips for Kids,” a survival guide for children terrified by what they’re learning in Hebrew school (he advises that they defend themselves with nunchaku, just like his hero Bruce Lee).

In his 2007 memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” Mr. Auslander describes the first naked Jewish girl he ever saw, at age 11 while attending a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y.: film footage of a corpse tumbling off a pile of bulldozed bodies.

As spoiled and overprotected as we might have been, children at that time were considered hardier creatures than they are today (no car seats, no parents hovering over our homework, and no holds barred on the bulldozer scenes). And although it already seemed like ancient history to us at the time, World War II was a generation closer, and even closer than that for our teachers. Explaining the complexity of the history to young children — a history so relevant to our own grandparents — might have been impossible, but at least, educators thought, they could convey some urgency with overwhelming visuals and statistics.

AT the time, I agreed with a philosophy my teachers must also have held — that if tens of thousands of children had lived, or didn’t live, through those horrors, the least we could do was witness 20 minutes of that reality, even if it gave us nightmares. In many ways, I lived in too safe and comfortable a world to internalize the other message that often came with Holocaust education: That it could happen here, that we, too, were vulnerable to such vast and hateful forces of history.

Nah, I decided, and went home to watch “Little House on the Prairie” reruns while my mom made dinner.

For some kids, that kind of message may have reinforced their Jewish identity. But the focus on Jewish isolation — long on graphic proof, short on historical context — actively repelled at least as many of my peers (including Mr. Shteyngart and Mr. Auslander, as recent conversations with both made clear).

“We were scaring kids half to death and then telling them, ‘You’ve got to embrace your Judaism,’ ” said Carol K. Ingall, a professor of Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. “It didn’t work.”

In the past 25 years, much has changed about Holocaust education in Jewish schools and in public schools, where it’s a more recent addition to the curriculum. There has been a shift, Dr. Ingall said, away from what teachers wanted to convey and toward “the needs of the learner — there’s an understanding that they’re more likely to wrap their heads around a narrative around children like themselves or Jews who did courageous things.”

As a child, I craved the latter, as well as the context provided by a curriculum like Facing History, an influential program that took off nationally in the ’90s, and is taught in both public and Jewish schools, mostly in middle and high schools. The curriculum teaches the Holocaust, along with the history of genocide, as a way of understanding the power of individual citizens in a democracy, with emphasis on the historical steps that led to the Nazi regime (and with sparing, careful presentation of the atrocities).

In primary schools, increasingly, the Holocaust is being used as a model, said Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, “to teach young children about tolerance — for example, teaching that it is wrong to be a bully.”

But, Dr. Shandler added with understatement, “There’s a risk in offering an overly simple argument that there is a direct line between being a bully and being complicit in mass murder.” And as for a new spate of Holocaust books for children that focus on kids who got out safely, highlighting courage and resistance, emphasizing only the inspirational, one can’t help wondering if this is an arena in which the message of self-esteem is insufficient.

It seems appropriate that a chapter of history almost impossible to grasp would present impossible challenges, especially for young children. Maybe 25 years from now, thirtysomething Jewish authors will be writing satirical novels about the bill of goods they were sold in grade school about all those kids who survived the Holocaust.

Chances are, educators will still be wrestling with how best to approach the material. History’s facts are immutable, but what we want for our children — and from them — keeps changing.

E-mail: susan.dominus@nytimes.com