How to Talk to Kids About the Holocaust

Today marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. While it marks an important day for adults to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust and honor the six million Jews who were killed, you may also be wondering how much—if anything—you should be teaching your kids. Although most educators agree the Holocaust should not be formally taught until around middle school, it may come up in your home sooner, or kids may hear about it outside of the home and come to you with questions.

When do you start the conversation?

Developmental psychologist and author Dr. Dona Matthews writes for Psychology Today that, depending on your family’s history and experience, the Holocaust may become relevant at different times and in different ways for different families. But sometimes, kids learn about it in school or hear details from friends before you might consider them to be ready for it. As Matthews recalls:

When my grandson was in first grade, his school—a public school in Toronto—marked Holocaust Remembrance Day by sharing horrific details, including the fact that children and whole families had been taken out of their homes, and sent to showers where they died. Theo is an imaginative, sensitive, and empathetic child, and it took a long time before he stopped having nightmares about this.

I am very happy that educators are beginning to recognize the importance of Holocaust education, but 6 is way too young for a child to make good sense of details like this. Most of the material produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is targeted for age 11 or 12, and not earlier.

However, if kids do come to you with questions at a younger age, it’s still important, as Matthews says, to answer them in an honest but age-appropriate way. Ask them what they’ve heard and confirm what is true, while also focusing on the fact that while it was a terrible time, it is important for us to remember what happened so we can make sure it never happens again. Be sure to ask if they have any other questions, and follow their lead; kids are good at guiding us through how much information they want or are ready for.

If you are able to wait until they’re a little older, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says that at about grade six, kids are starting to be able to process the complexities of the Holocaust’s history. Until then, the museum’s website says:

Elementary school can be an ideal place to begin discussing the value of diversity and the danger of bias and prejudice. These critical themes can be addressed through local and national historical events and can be reinforced during later study of the Holocaust.

So the conversations you have with your kids when they’re young about bias, discrimination, and the importance of inclusivity will serve as a foundation for the discussions you have with kids about the Holocaust as they get older.

Resources for families

If your child is learning about the Holocaust in school and wants more information—or you’ve decided to explore its history together—the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is a great place to start. It has a variety of resources for kids and parents to read and view together, as well as a guide for teachers that can also be useful for parents in helping to define the Holocaust, use precise language, avoid generalizations, and contextualize the history. I’d encourage parents to watch any videos on the website first, before viewing with your kids, as there may be images or other content that is too difficult for some.

If your kids like to learn through storytelling, here are a few titles for your older elementary or middle-school-age child to start with (I suggest you read the books, too, so you can discuss them together):

1. I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944: Written by Lauren Tarshis, this is the ninth book in her popular “I Survived” series of historical fiction stories told from a child’s point of view.

2. Number the Stars: Historical fiction written by Lois Lowry, this story follows 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, whose family takes in her best friend, Ellen Rosen, to conceal her when German troops begin their campaign to “relocate” Jews in Denmark.

3. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl: 13-year-old Anne Frank kept a diary while her family and another family hid for two years during the German occupation of Holland until they were discovered and captured in August of 1944.

If you’d like more ideas, Common Sense Media has put together a full list of books about the Holocaust for pre-teens and teenagers to read.

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