By Rev. Marti Keller
Memoirist Deborah Feldman, who walked away from her Hasidic upbringing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a young adult, went on a sojourn to discover herself as a Jewish person now that she had rejected her ultra-Orthodox roots. Her journey took her through Europe, where she retraced her grandmother’s life during the Holocaust, including time in a concentration camp.
At the Holocaust museum in Berlin, Feldman wandered into a room that explained the Nazi death camps: what they were, how they were run. She saw a little boy, around seven, in an audio booth, listening to the description of millions of Jews being transported to and processed for their deaths in the Auschwitz gas chambers.
In her book, Exodus, she writes, “‘You shouldn’t be here,’ I wanted to say. ‘You are too young.’” Later, she reflects that a small child may indeed need to learn about those death camps in order to grow into a decent human being. For this reason, after the war, non-Jewish German children received early, explicit teaching on the horrific consequences of ethnic hatred.
Similarly, as Marjorie Ingall wrote in a Tablet magazine column, for contemporary Jewish parents to sidestep the Holocaust (and Jewish suffering across centuries before) because we wish our children to be carefree and happy is simply an impossibility. “Really?” she asks. Jewish history has not been carefree and happy. Our children need to know the darker side of what it has meant to be Jewish for so many years in so many places. If parents fail to educate children about anti-Semitism and genocide, Ingall reminds us, as with sexuality education, someone else will do it for us. By the time our child is eight years old, Ingall suggests, caregivers must share the unpleasant stories in a way that is neither too graphic nor terrifying for caregivers or children.
Those of us who are self-identified Jewish Unitarian Universalists are more than likely to be aligned with the 73 percent of American Jews recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center who said that remembering the Holocaust is essential to their sense of Jewishness. We need appropriate materials, as do all parents who want to tell the distressing but very real stories of discrimination and annihilation, to teach our kids our history, as Marjorie Ingall proposes, without scarring them for life.
In light of the recent horrendous, hate-triggered events in Pakistan, Paris and Nigeria, it is fortuitous that our own Unitarian Universalist Skinner House Press has just published Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree. This children’s book by a well-known Jewish author, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, with enticing illustrations by Erika Steiskal, uses a clever and effective device to tell about the girl whose diary helped expose the evils of the Holocaust: The story’s narrator is the now famous horse chestnut tree that Anne could see from her family’s attic hiding place in Amsterdam. The tree tells only what it witnessed. So, what happened afterward—Anne’s death from typhus and the obliteration of the others who had hidden in that Secret Annex—is not shared. But the humanity of Anne and her sister Margot, the injustice of their treatment, and the trajectory of hatred are vividly conveyed.
As a parent of three children who are now grown, and as a former UU religious education teacher, I wish this book had been available when my children began to be aware of the Holocaust and other genocides. This is a book to be read with our children or by our children. It is certainly appropriate for group settings where the story of Anne and her family—and of the chestnut tree whose saplings are now planted in so many places, in remembrance and in hope—is unfortunately too much needed today.
Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree, co-published by Skinner House with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, is available from the UUA Bookstore.
The Sapling Project of the Anne Frank Center USA brings together diverse communities and educational centers in a shared celebration of Anne, her beloved chestnut tree, her appreciation of nature, and her longing for freedom and justice in the world. Since 2009 the Center has awarded 11 saplings of the Anne Frank Tree to sites across the country.
Watch “Nurturing the Spiritual Imagination of Children,” the Sophia Fahs Lecture given by Rabbi Sandy Sasso at the 2009 UUA General Assembly. More recently, in an interview with the Faith and Leadership online magazine, Rabbi Sasso talked about how stories and art allow children and adults to engage deeply in the sacred.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27, 2015. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has produced a 38-minute film, "The Path to Nazi Genocide," which you can watch here. (Note: The film is intended for adult viewers; selected segments may be appropriate for younger audiences.)
Explore the Portrait of Jewish Americans provided by the Pew Research Center (2013).
Read the story of Unitarians Martha and Waitstill Sharp, honored posthumously as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel, in the Tapestry of Faith children’s program Toolbox of Faith.
About the Blogger
Rev. Marti Keller is a self-identified, lifelong Jewnitarian. The co-editor of Jewish Voices in Unitarian Universalism (Skinner House, 2014), she is a former president of UUs for Jewish Awareness and a member of the board of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.