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A Holocaust book for young children

By Josh Spero

image copyrightGetty Images

News that Israeli children are to receive compulsory lessons about the Holocaust provoked an outcry from pundits who were traumatised by teachers when they were young. But a book for the youngest schoolchildren aims to avoid this mistake.

It looks like the sort of children's book you find the world over - illustrations of a chubby three-year-old boy flying a plane or playing in snow, drawings of different food and animals - a standard educational tool. But this boy is Tommy and the circumstances of this book's creation were anything but standard.

In 1944 Tommy and his father, Bedrich Fritta, were trapped in the Terezin ghetto in Czechoslovakia - Jews caught in the Nazis' net.

During the day Bedrich was forced to draw propaganda posters, but at night, he secretly painted this watercolour album, to give his son a vision of normality amid the seething hell of the ghetto.

Now this book is at the centre of a row in Israel, where I have come for a conference at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial centre high on a hill in Jerusalem.

image copyrightThomas Fritta Haas
image caption"We wonder who your bride will be": Shulamit Imber says the book teaches what life has to offer

So high, in fact, that on the day I meet Shulamit Imber, pedagogical director of the International School for Holocaust Studies, the whole complex is enclosed in a thick grey cloud, while rain beats down ceaselessly across the campus.

Imber, a smiling woman wearing a red felt hat and a red-and-white polka-dotted dress, complete with Minnie Mouse bow, has been devising a curriculum for Holocaust education for children as young as six.

This is where Tommy comes in: the book is to be course material for the youngest students.

The author, says Imber, is teaching Tommy what life has to offer.

"He wants to make him happy in the ghetto," she says. "He wants to show him that there is a nice world outside the ghetto, and he wants to tell him he is going to build him a future… He is drawing him a world he can survive in."

The book is a good tool, she says, because it concentrates on life rather than death, without ignoring the true circumstances. It will educate but not traumatise.

The storm which broke out when education minister Shay Piron announced that Holocaust education was to become compulsory for all Israeli schoolchildren precisely illustrated why a book like Tommy might be necessary.

In newspaper opinion pieces, writers recalled the traumas they had suffered when Holocaust education had been done badly.

One remembered being shown the movie Night and Fog aged 14, with footage from the death camps of "mountains of bodies being bulldozed", leaving him "tormented", while another still suffered nightmares 30 years after a teacher showed him, aged seven or eight, photos of what he called "walking corpses in striped pyjamas".

In Imber's office, a modern academic cubbyhole with children's drawings on the wall, this atmosphere of trauma seems very distant.

She explains that under the new curriculum children will have 15 to 20 hours of Holocaust education a year using materials that are age-appropriate.

At the moment teachers deal with the subject as they think best, often in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, but they are rarely suitably trained.

image copyrightThomas Fritta Haas
image caption"Cow - moo, cheap, bow wow, baah"

Hence the tales of children being forced to re-enact agonising life-or-death scenarios in the classroom.

One story I heard was of a teacher who showed their class the nature of the Holocaust by making them write down their dreams, then putting them in a bucket and burning them.

It is not an easy line to tread, I suggest to Imber. Aged six, children have already heard the siren which goes off across Israel on Memorial Day and probably asked their parents about it, so they may well already have knowledge that six million Jews died.

But the curriculum's approach is to stress the lives those Jews led. She says: "I do not think numbers and bodies have meaning. I, in fact, think that this is the Nazis' method, to dehumanise the people, and actually we rescue the individual out of the pile of bodies."

As I visited the museums and memorials of Yad Vashem, this emphasis on the individual recurred.

Inside the Children's Memorial, a darkened structure of glass, mirrors and candles which seem to reflect forever, the names, ages and countries of some of the boys and girls who died in the Holocaust are read out.

The art gallery displays piteous and angry portraits and self-portraits made inside the ghettos and death camps, while the archive contains diaries and other artefacts left behind by those who died.

I would not say it was uplifting - but it was not traumatic.

"Trauma is the opposite of education," says Imber. "Education has to lead to hope, and trauma doesn't have a meaning."

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