“What happened to them?” My son pointed at the family tree I’d just scribbled, some slots empty without names.
“They were killed.”
“Really?” His eyes widened. “All of them? Even the children?”
“Yes, even the children.”
“They were . . . ”
Here I stumbled. I couldn’t make myself tell the whole story to my sensitive 11-year-old. It was 10 p.m. and I didn’t want him to have nightmares. But deep inside, I knew it wasn’t just the time of day. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to tell the whole story in broad daylight.
I know the story intimately. It’s one that was repeated over and over across Eastern Europe, where, instead of being deported to concentration camps, Jews were murdered in mass shootings. That’s how, on September 10, 1941, the 837 Jews of the village of Novopoltavka in Ukraine — among them my grandfather’s parents, 9 of his 10 siblings, and all of his nieces and nephews — were killed by the Nazis. The numbers and dates I found out much later, as an adult, but the story itself I heard from my grandmother, who used to tell it to me many times, the way other grandmothers tell their grandchildren fairy tales before bed.
I can still hear her singsong voice and the squeaking of her wardrobe door as she pulled out a box of photos and letters, sat down on her bed in our Soviet apartment, and began to rock mournfully back and forth. “They told all the Jews to leave their houses and to get undressed,” she lamented. “They drove them, naked, through the entire village — women, old people, children, everyone. They brought them to the outskirts and made them dig, then they lined them all up in front of the hole they dug and shot them one by one.”
This is not even the image I remember most vividly. “There were two girls,” my grandmother continued — and here she would tell me their names, but I remember only the Russian diminutive suffixes — something-echka and something-achka. “So pretty they were. Such thin, delicate fingers — tachonye palchiki — they had.” My grandmother was a piano teacher, so she paid special attention to children’s fingers. “They were killed too.”
Every time my grandmother told me the detail about the girls’ hands, I would look at my own chubby fingers and resolve at least to get better at playing the piano so that people would have something to be sad about if I were killed, too. This was my main concern back then.
At some point my dad would come into the room and chide her for scaring the children. But it was too late. I had already heard it, and I would hear it again.
These are the stories that I couldn’t bring myself to tell to my son. The idea of telling him all the details made me queasy. Yet I knew that a simple and sterile “They were killed” wasn’t enough.
How do we teach our kids about the Holocaust? Last month a school in Washington, D.C., modeled what not to do: They asked students to reenact scenes from the Holocaust. This was disrespectful to the victims and traumatizing to the children. It was Holocaust education gone terribly wrong.
Yet the other extreme, which is not saying anything or glossing over the uncomfortable details, is wrong, too. Two-thirds of young US adults in a 2020 survey were unaware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Nearly 25 percent think that the Holocaust might be a myth.
We’re so used to cushioning our kids’ psyches in order not to traumatize them that we can’t bring ourselves to tell the whole story. In our world, the wolf puts Red Riding Hood’s grandma into the closet instead of devouring her. How could we tell them the real-life horror tale of the thousands of Jews who were told to dig their own graves or the millions who were tortured to death in concentration camps?
But skipping over difficult issues means we end up not only sacrificing the truth but robbing our kids of their stories, which, like it or not, are an integral part of their identity.
My grandmother’s stories were the only way for me to get to know those people, my relatives. They also reinforced my sense that we were different, which was relevant then, in the context of Soviet antisemitism, and is no less relevant now in the context of resurgent antisemitism in America. It will always be relevant, antisemitism or not.
I only regret not listening closely enough to know all their names.
Recounting the details of the lives and deaths of those we lost makes their stories uncomfortably real, as it should. And if we want to carry Holocaust awareness into the next generation, we must keep telling the real, terrible family stories — with respect, sensitivity, and truth.
I’m still gathering up the courage to do it with my own son. I know that one day soon, maybe after a visit to Yad Vashem, and definitely not at 10 p.m., I will pull out the photographs that I have inherited from my grandmother and I will tell him the whole story.
Tanya Mozias Slavin is a writer who grew up in Russia, has lived in the United States, Canada, and the UK, and is now based in Israel. She is working on a memoir about language, identity, and belonging. Follow her Twitter @tanya_mozias and on Facebook.