Identification card for Anny-Yolande Horowitz, deported to Auschwitz on September 11, 1942. She was seven years old.
Early last month, French President Nicholas Sarkozy proposed a new education plan in which every fifth grader would have to learn the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Fifth graders, for those of you who may not know, are a mere ten-years old — a fact that has prompted protest by legions of psychologists arguing that exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust would be far more traumatizing than instructive. Sarkozy’s plan has also been met with extreme disapproval from his political opponents, as well as by secularists who criticize the President's over-indulgent praise of religion. Finally, many Jews simply perceive the plan as morally reprehensible. “You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child,” observes Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and the honorary president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust. “The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear.”
Here in the United States, where scores of pre-teens routinely bear witness to all sorts of horrors by just looking at their local newspapers; where PG-13 film ratings offer sensurround, if fictionalized accounts of all kinds of violence, corruption and evil; and where the disclaimer “Viewer Discretion Advised” is as likely to precede a cable documentary on the dangers of high-risk pregancy as a news feature on prison conditions in New Jersey, the U. S. Holocaust Museum discourages visits from children under the age of 12.
Whose discretion are we talking about?
One of the great ironies of contemporary culture is the degree to which such pro-forma warnings read as largely invisible: they’re the on-air equivalent of the flight-attendant demonstrating the proper use of the oxygen mask in the event of an emergency landing. “Viewer Discretion Advised” tells us we’ve been warned: if we’re traumatized, it’s our own damned fault.
Meanwhile, schoolchildren are typically taught history by fact and by date. They memorize key battles and identify significant acts of legislation, a process intended to highlight those benchmarks of civilization with which we should all aspire to fluency. Curiously, the notion that making history human would devalue such learning seems odd, if not entirely oxymoronic: if we read and analyze fiction to come to a better understanding of our own humanity, why would we not derive similar lessons from our own history? We would no sooner consider reading (or for that matter, watching) King Lear with a “Viewer Discretion Advised” warning than we would imagine Wolf Blitzer asking us to remove our children from the premises before watching The Situation Room on CNN. But the Holocaust is different.
Or is it? American viewers of the daytime television series As The World Turns were recently stunned by a homosexual couple’s on-air kiss, while gay viewers (and there are many) both applauded the network’s progressiveness and criticized its chaste approach. Okay to show steamy bedroom scenes at 2:00 in the afternoon but only if they're heterosexual? Televised nature shows show the dog-eat-dog conditions of life in the jungle. Okay to show animal cruelty as long as it's only animals inflicting it? How about the scores of disgruntled gunmen mowing down a crowd of unsuspecting holiday shoppers, or innocent college students, or young, sleeping children? Okay to make them lead stories on the evening news as long as we don't actually show the attacks and abductions?
Implicit in any nation's history are tragic stories of the loss of innocent lives. Kent State. September 11. Meanwhile, the proliferation of violent video games reinforces the notion that crime can indeed pay — but crimes against humanity are too hot to handle, ergo, we shouldn’t teach the Holocaust to ten-year-olds by encouraging them to identify with other children because that's just too close to home.
Take another look at the photo, above, of little Anny Horowitz. Blond hair, blue eyes, born in Strasbourg, deported at the age of 7. Now imagine a ten-year-old child examining her identification card — her wobbly little signature, her tiny smeared thumbprint. Is it traumatizing to think about Anny's abbreviated life? Or is it just uncomfortable? Could it be that the very presence of empathy remains an unrecognizable emotion in many a classroom?
It's worth noting that one of the lone detractors in the Sarkozy debacle is Serge Klarsfeld, a Jewish lawyer and historian who has devoted the majority of his adult life to the study of the French children of the Holocaust. Klaarsfeld’s book — which lists the names, addresses, ages and deportation details of virtually every French child sent to a concentration camp during the War — should be a mandatory staple of every school library in the world. It is not necessary to witness the unspeakable horrors that befell these children in order to relate emotionally to their stories: one has simply to look through this book to begin to comprehend the degree to which compassion is as important a lesson for schoolchildren as is memorizing the dates of famous battles. Ten-year-olds need not be exploited, or traumatized, or overwhelmed by tragedy in order to understand despair and its profoundly human consequences — but they do need to actually feel something to really remember, and ultimately respond as citizens of a world which they will one day inherit. Human compassion advised.