Should There Be Holocaust Education for K-4 Students? The Answer Is No.


Samuel Totten

The Holocaust is one of the most tortuously complex—not to mention horrific—subjects an educator can tackle. Over the span of twelve years, it is estimated that six million Jews—including one million children—and at least five million other victims (Gypsies, Poles, Russian Prisoners of War, other Slavs, and other groups) were gassed, shot, starved, worked or brutally beaten to death. To even begin to comprehend the “why” behind the what, how, where, and when of the history, one needs to examine—at a minimum—German history (at least the period relevant to the nineteenth century and early twentieth century) and the interconnecting skeins of traditional Christian antisemitism, political antisemitism, racial antisemitism, Social Darwinism, extreme nationalism, and industrialism. And that’s not even mentioning the impact of modernity, the concept of totalitarianism, and the concomitant terror of such a system.

As one wrestles with the aforementioned topics and issues, there are still the people (perpetrators, collaborators, victims, bystanders, and rescuers) and their actions, the events (e.g., Kristallnacht, the Wannsee Conference, the St. Louis Affair), the legislation passed and implemented by the leaders of the Third Reich (some four hundred separate pieces, including the infamous Nuremberg Laws), the incremental nature of the stranglehold that the Nazis slowly but surely applied to the Jews and others, the decisions made by the Nazis, and the abject brutality and horror perpetrated across Europe for twelve dark years to piece together and try to comprehend.

To even attempt to teach one aspect of the above in a way that is understandable to a five, six, seven, or eight year-old would be folly. To do so by telling the “real story” with all of its hatred, abuse, ugliness, and murderousness would constitute miseducation. And yet some educators advocate teaching such history—or something that approximates it, which is frequently referred to as “Holocaust education”—to young children. A growing number of states are committed to incorporating Holocaust education into their elementary curriculum. Indeed, in a recent article, “Incorporating Holocaust Education into K-4 Curriculum and Teaching in the United States,” in Social Studies and The Young Learner (January/February 1999), Harriet Sepinwall, the co-director of The College of Saint Elizabeth’s Holocaust Education Resource Center, advocates Holocaust education for young children. Is this wise? Is this right? Is this pedagogically sound?

Upon reading Sepinwal#146;s article, at least four questions came to the fore: What is the express purpose of teaching the Holocaust to young children? Can the Holocaust be taught to such young children? Should the Holocaust be taught to such young children? Is what is being advocated as Holocaust education truly Holocaust education, or is it misnamed?


What Is the Express Purpose of Teaching the Holocaust to Young Children?

While acknowledging that many “recognize that the study of the Holocaust may not seem an appropriate topic for our youngest students,” Sepinwall reports that “they [certain states, school districts, and individual teachers] believe that there are some lessons of the Holocaust that can and should be taught at this leve#148; (IHE, 5).1 Continuing, she suggests in part that among the major purposes of teaching about the Holocaust to young children are “learning the importance of tolerance and respect for others who are different, and to acquire and practice skills for resolving conflicts peacefully and for living together in a spirit of mutual cooperation and appreciation for the contribution of others” (IHE, 5). Sepinwall supports her call for what she deems “Holocaust education” (e.g., that which focuses on the latter components and certain elements of the history itself) by noting the fact that “American history is filled with examples of nativism, prejudice, racism, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-immigrant actions and movements” (IHE, 5). This is incontestable, but does it call for a so-called “Holocaust education” program (or more aptly, a quasi-Holocaust education program) that focuses on the components she mentions for such youngsters?

A primary purpose of Holocaust education should focus on teaching students the history of the Holocaust. This means a focus on what happened and why it happened; the key individuals and groups engulfed in the history and the myriad ways in which they affected and/or were affected by key decisions and events; and when, where, why, and how key decisions and events were played out, and the ramifications of the latter. If it neglects to focus on the history, then what is the purpose of Holocaust education? That is not to say, of course, that there are not lessons to be learned. There are. But shouldn’t the lessons bubble up and out of the history as the students wrestle with it and come to understand why and how the Holocaust evolved out of numerous and complex historical antecedents and was driven by an ideology and those wedded to it? At one and the same time, shouldn’t students learn of the impact of the perpetrators, collaborators, and the bystanders—and, most significantly, the fate of the victims?


Can the Holocaust Be Taught to Such Young Children?

So, in part, the question is, Can something as complex as the Holocaust be taught to young children? Granted, Jerome Bruner asserted that “... there is an appropriate version of any skill or knowledge that may be imparted at whatever age one wishes to begin teaching—however preparatory the version may be” (italics added). 2 Ostensibly, those who advocate “Holocaust education” at the K-4 level are likely to assert that they are implementing something that approximates Bruner’s position. Possibly they are. But why call it Holocaust education? Why not “civil education”? Or “human rights education”? Or “prejudice reduction education”?

Some primary and elementary teachers, though, seem to be going a bit beyond preparatory work and are actually including fragments of the history into their lessons and/or bringing in survivors to speak to the students. Can Holocaust history be taught in this way? Should it be taught in this way? Certainly, it could be. If it is watered down enough, if the major concepts such as the intertwining nature of traditional Christian antisemitism, political antisemitism and racial antisemitism, Social Darwinism, extreme nationalism, and industrialism, to mention but a few, are totally passed over, ignored, or simplified to the nth degree, then, yes, it can be taught. If the differences between fascist, communist, and democratic states are totally passed over, ignored, or simplified, then, yes, it can be taught. If the complexities of the results of World War I and Germany’s reaction to the Versailles Treaty, the Nazis’ false notion of the “stab in the back” by the Jews, and the ensuing economic downturn in Germany are totally passed over, ignored, or simplified beyond recognition, then, yes, it can be taught. If the complexities of how people acted—depending on the time period, various events, and personal and societal pressures—are totally passed over, more or less ignored, or grossly simplified, then, yes, it can be taught. If the abusive actions of the Nazis, including beating old men and women, many to death; slamming babies’ heads against walls; lining entire communities of thousands up aside ditches and mowing them down, row after row, to the point that they piled up on one another, some still gasping for breath; gassing innocent men, women, and children; starving people to the point where they were walking skeletons; brutally playing with people’s emotions, hopes, and lives and then quashing all of those with a flick of the wrist; if all of this is totally passed over, largely ignored, or simplified beyond recognition, then, yes, it can be taught.

Has a straw man been set up here and knocked down? That is, have I focused on aspects of the history that would probably not be taught to K-fourth graders and overlooked that history which is more “appropriate” for this age group. I think not. To be fair, though, one must consider those aspects of Holocaust history which Sepinwall, and presumably certain others, think should be taught to K-4 students.

To support her position for incorporating “Holocaust education” at the K-4 level, Sepinwall cites a 1994 New Jersey law that reads as follows:

The instruction shall enable pupils to identify and analyze applicable theories concerning human nature and behavior; to understand that genocide is a consequence of prejudice and discrimination; and to understand that issues of moral dilemma and conscience have a profound impact on life. The instruction shall further emphasize the personal responsibility that each citizen bears to fight racism and hatred wherever that happens (IHE, 6). 3

Sepinwall goes on to note that the New Jersey law “points to studies reporting that many students do not know about the Holocaust. New Jersey’s governor and legislators resolved that all children in the state must so that the lessons of the Holocaust could be learned” (italics added) (IHE, 6).

The first half of the law (dealing with theories and interpretations of what causes genocide) is certainly not germane to the education of K-4 students, while the second half (dealing with moral dilemmas, conscience, and personal responsibility) is definitely applicable to the life and education of any school-age child. Still, the question arises, Is the term Holocaust education really the correct term to apply to the latter components, especially if the history of the Holocaust is not taught in conjunction with such goals? Is it really Holocaust education? If so, how so? And if it is basically preparatory in nature, then why—in the light of the topics addressed—is it preparatory solely for Holocaust education and not something broader, more inclusive?

Discussing the plethora of books on the Holocaust available now for use in classrooms, Sepinwall states, “Books recommended for use with K-4 generally do not provide graphic details of the horrors the Holocaust ...” (italics added) (IHE, 7). Generally? Why isn’t it never? Indeed, what is the point of ever subjecting such young and tender minds and hearts to such atrocities? Not only are they unable to place such horrors in context, but learning such information could result in nightmares and other psychological distress.

Sepinwall notes that while many books “may substitute metaphors or allegories” (IHE, 7) for the actual horrors of the Holocaust, “some books for young children do include stories relating to what happened to children during the Holocaust” (IHE, 7). More specifically, Sepinwall states,

They may tell stories of strained and lost friendships, or of hidden children and their rescuers, or they may deal more specifically with the Holocaust by describing the lives of those forced into concentration camps, of families separated and then reunited, or of children facing life as survivors after the Holocaust. Still other books encourage children to see the Holocaust in the context of historic antisemitism and to remember the victims of the Holocaust (IHE, 7).


Again, are these appropriate topics for K-4 students? I think not! Without contextualization, how will such young students even begin to understand why the children were in hiding, in need of rescue, or separated from their families? Conversely, when such contextualization is provided, teachers are almost forced to enter the horrific aspects of the Holocaust, which, again, is inappropriate for children this age. As for teaching anything about what life was really like in the ghettos, concentration camps, and death camps, that is obscenely inappropriate. And as for teaching them about historic antisemitism, many high school students at the junior and senior levels have great difficulty understanding that torturous history, so how can anyone expect a K-4 student to do so?

At another point Sepinwall asserts, “Increased use of the Internet links students in classrooms with Holocaust survivors and with other students who are studying this topic, and allows them to use Holocaust-related documents” (IHE, 7). Should such young children really be engaging in discussion with Holocaust survivors? It is a simple but profound fact that many junior high school students, not to mention high school students, are often overwhelmed with the stories of Holocaust survivors.

And what about Holocaust documents? While Sepinwall does not specify what she means by the phrase “Holocaust-related documents,” one surmises that she is either referring to material that deals with the history in some fashion or another and/or the use of primary documents. No matter which, neither seems appropriate for use with K-4 students, and that is due to the simple fact that they are not likely to understand much if anything that they read—if in fact they are even able to read such material.

Sepinwall goes on to mention that a third grade teacher in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, “invites Holocaust survivors to speak to her students, and discusses newspaper articles concerning the lives of survivors today” (IHE, 7). One has to wonder, What do the survivors speak about? If they solely speak about life before or after the Holocaust, does that have any real meaning for the students? Again, such information would be decontextualized if the facts of the Holocaust were not discussed. On the other hand, if the survivors talk about the prejudice and discrimination they faced in the early years of the Nazis’ rise to power, does it make any sense if the students cannot figure out why the Jews were targeted? Hopefully, the survivors do not talk about the horrors of the deportations, slave labor, or life and death in the concentration and death camps.

Sepinwall also mentions a fourth grade teacher in Delaware who teaches her students “about the Nazi plans and actions, [and has them] wear a Star of David, and ... meet and ask questions of a Holocaust survivor” (IHE, 7). This teacher, Sepinwall notes, concludes the study by taking her students to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum where she “encourages them to discuss what they are seeing and feeling” (IHE, 7). The same question arises as above: Are fourth graders—eight and nine year-old children—capable of understanding this history and handling the concomitant horror? And if teachers believe they are not and thus teach this history without focusing on key but difficult concepts, as well as the horrific nature of what really happened, are they teaching the Holocaust? And yet again, if the teachers are focusing on the horror, should they be doing so?

As for having students wear the star, what is the point? It sounds like little more than “fun and games.” Certainly, the students are not going to learn of the abysmal degradation and humiliation Jews felt by being forced to wear an emblem that resulted in even more isolation and opprobrium. As the authors of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust note, gimmicky activities “trivialize the importance of studying this history. When the effects of a particular activity run counter to the rationale for studying the history, then that activity should not be used.”4

Should the Holocaust Be Taught to Such Young Children?

So, should Holocaust history even be taught to K-4 students? It seems as if a resounding no is in order. This is so for three main reasons. First, the history is far too complex for young children to understand. As previously mentioned, it comprises a host of extremely complex concepts. Second, without a fairly solid understanding of the aforementioned concepts, it is difficult for anyone to truly understand why and how the Holocaust unfolded. Third, it is simply and profoundly inappropriate to introduce, let alone immerse, such young children to the various horrors of the Holocaust.


Is What Is Being Presented as Holocaust Education Really Holocaust Education or Is It Misnamed?

Among the many outcomes for K-4 Holocaust education that Sepinwall repeatedly specifies are the need to “learn the importance of tolerance and respect for others who are different” (IHE, 5); “acquire and practice skills for resolving conflicts peacefully and for living together in a spirit of mutual cooperation and appreciation for the contributions of others” (IHE, 6); “develop self-esteem” (IHE, 6); learn how “prejudice hurts everyone and ways we all (individually, as a community, as a nation, and a world) suffer because of it” (IHE, 6); “accept that each person is responsible for his/her actions” (IHE, 6); “think of ways in which [one] can stand up for what [one] believes is right and good” (IHE, 6); be “more kind and respectful toward others” (IHE, 7); and “reduce prejudice” (IHE, 7).

The upshot is, and only with certain key exceptions (e.g., inviting Holocaust survivors into the classroom, reading Holocaust-related documents, and visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), what is being described and advocated by Sepinwall and certain others is not so much Holocaust education as “prejudice reduction,” “bias reduction,” or “conflict resolution.” All of the latter are worthy goals for grades K-4. Indeed, when young people are forming their opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and ways of interrelating with other individuals and groups, the tender years seem to be an opportune time to instill in students respect and appreciation for other people.

What is the rationale, though, for referring to educative efforts such as Holocaust education? For the most part, few of the K-4 teachers are teaching much of anything about the history of the Holocaust. From my perspective, that is an intelligent decision. As for those who are attempting to teach this history to such young students, their pedagogical actions are, at best, problematic.

On another note, the naming of something (an idea, concept, situation) provides an imprimatur of sorts. Thus, referring to “conflict resolution” or “prejudice reduction” as Holocaust education may lead some to think that it is proper to incorporate actual Holocaust topics/issues into such pedagogical practices. Indeed, it may lead to a situation in which such a situation becomes the rule rather than the exception.

That said, if certain educators are so wedded to the idea that what they do in the fields of conflict resolution or multicultural education should be deemed “Holocaust education,” then it may be better to refer to their curricular and instructional programs as “pre-Holocaust education” or “preparatory Holocaust education,” signaling their understanding that the teaching of Holocaust history is not appropriate at the K-4 level, but that it is to come later in the students’ careers (e.g., at the junior high or high school levels).

So, why not call the pedagogical efforts to teach for tolerance, respect, and a reduction in prejudice what they are? Is there something about the phrase “Holocaust education” that is more “catchy?” Is that what is at work in referring to prejudice reduction, bias reduction, and conflict reduction as “Holocaust education.” If so, it should not be.


What Does the Future Hold for Holocaust Education in the K-4 Grades?

So what does the future hold for authentic Holocaust education at the K-4 levels? Hopefully, nothing! That said, some wishing to carve out their own niche or unique place in Holocaust education are bound to forge ahead with their attempt to implement Holocaust K-4 education. Others, truly believing that young children “need” to know this history, will continue to bring aspects of this history into their classrooms. This may include the use of guest speakers such as Holocaust survivors or the children of Holocaust survivors (the second generation). It may include showing some of the more innocuous films, films that verge on the inane, the historically inaccurate, and the watered-down. It may include bits and pieces of the history such as the actions of the rescuers but in a way that is decontexualized to a state of pointlessness. It may include posters that make some but not entire sense. It may include story books or simple allegories that deal with prejudice, discrimination, and the bystander syndrome, but not the history of the Holocaust itself. And, of course, the inclusion of simple allegories would be fine, but it is not “Holocaust education,” per se.

And eventually, unless many voices are raised in concern about this issue, the teaching of aspects of this history may actually trickle down to at least the fourth grade level to a point where many fourth grade teachers perceive the need to teach this history to their young charges. That would be more than a shame; indeed, it would constitute an abuse of the educational process.



So where does this leave us? Especially those of us who care deeply about children learning to respect, appreciate, and interact with one another in a decent, respectable manner? First, there is a critical need in this society to introduce and assist young people to appreciate the beauty of diversity (including the differences and similarities in individuals, themselves, and groups of people), honor the humanity in each individual, and avoid hurtful and harmful stereotyping, prejudice, bias, and discrimination against those who are “different” from oneself. Second, assisting students to differentiate between appreciation and looking askance at difference, honoring versus denigrating those in different groups from our own, and accepting versus rejecting “the other” have a rightful place in the primary curriculum. So does the need to assist students to understand the differences between and among prejudice, bias, stereotyping, and discrimination, and to understand how and what the individual, family, and larger society can do to avoid such hurtful and harmful behavior. Third, all of the goals and objectives can be accomplished by not mentioning, let alone focusing on, something as complex and horrific as the Holocaust. Fourth, school is a place where children should be safe and not a place where they are barraged and overwhelmed by something that is conceptually and age inappropriate or simply beyond their ken. In essence, it is imperative that teachers and schools meet the children at their developmental level, challenge them, and not abuse them. It is as simple and profound as that. The challenge is before us, all of us.



1. Quotations referring to Harriet Sepinwal#146;s article are cited in the text using the following abbreviation: IHE: “Incorporating Holocaust Education into K-4 Curriculum and Teaching in the United States,” Social Studies & The Young Learner 10, no. 3 (1999): 5-8.

2. Jerome Bruner, Toward a Theory of Instruction (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1968).

3. For a discussion regarding the sagacity of even mandating Holocaust education, readers should consult Karen Shawn’s thought-provoking article, “Current Issues in Holocaust Education,” Dimensions: A Journal of Holocaust Studies 9, no. 2 (1995): 15-18.

4. William S. Parsons and Samuel Totten, Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust (Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1993). For a revealing insight into what it meant for German Jews to be forced to wear such markings, see Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941 (New York: Random House, 1998). See particularly pp. 429, 433-436, 438-439, 441-442, 444-445, 456.

About the Author

Samuel Totten is a professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He is the author of numerous articles, essays, and books on the Holocaust and genocide education.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.