President Nicolas Sarkozy of France shocked his république earlier this month, not just with a whirlwind romance and marriage to an Italian singer/supermodel recently photographed in knee-high black boots and nothing else, but with an announcement about the national curriculum. Sarkozy has mandated that, beginning next fall, every French fifth grader will have to study the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed during the Holocaust.
“Nothing is more moving, for a child, than the story of a child his own age, who has the same games, the same joys and the same hopes as he, but who, in the dawn of the 1940s, had the bad fortune to be defined as a Jew,” Sarkozy said in a speech to France’s Jewish community. Every French child, he said, should be “entrusted with the memory of a French child-victim of the Holocaust.”
This proposal seems well-intentioned enough. It’s a legitimate point, that if so many children were forced to live—and die—through this genocidal horror, children of today’s comparatively serene generation can stand to scan through photographs and diary entries, or watch the occasional educational video. In fact, Sarkozy’s proves a fascinating and courageous idea. These heavy historical lessons could newly instill in French youth the Gallic tenets of equality and liberty (and fraternity, while we’re at it) for all.
Still, there remains something to be said for keeping the innocents innocent, at least as long as we possibly can.
Simone Veil, honorary president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust and a Holocaust survivor herself, was present when Sarkozy made his announcement. “My blood turned to ice,” Veil said. “It is unimaginable, unbearable, tragic and, above all, unjust. You cannot inflict this on little ones of ten years old! You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child.”
Sarkozy argues that children must be told the truth, that “we do not traumatize children by giving them the gift of the memory of the country.” And yet, a country’s traumatic history can do just that. It doesn’t take a psychologist to predict that an inundation of difficult images—of emaciation, suffering and piles of the newly dead—could seriously scar more than a handful of kids. I imagine that I, too, might have been acutely disturbed by this eerie twinning, to learn at a tender age the life story of a French-Jewish mirror image.
In his darkly comic memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” Shalom Auslander describes the first time he ever saw a naked Jewish girl: as an 11 year-old yeshiva student, watching film footage of a female cadaver falling from a pile of bulldozed corpses.
This sick anecdote highlights an especially dangerous aspect of Holocaust education during a child’s crucial formative years. President Sarkozy’s order, though well-intentioned, could intensely interfere with the normal aspects of growing up.
Sarkozy made his proposal even more problematic (ah, our University’s favorite word) by framing it through religion. He placed blamed for the horrors of the last century on an “absence of God,” citing Nazi ideology’s turn away from “Judeo-Christian monotheism.” But this is not about a religious ethic; this is about ethics. Ethically speaking, the Holocaust must be taught, though it will never be easy.
When the great cartoonist and writer Art Spiegelman spoke here last semester, he told of an anime remake of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” And, a new German history textbook recounts death camps and Nazi power in a comic-book format. “The Search” is the Jewish character Esther’s storytelling, which importantly means that she survived. Two-thirds of European Jewry, we know, did not.
Of course, a cartoon narration of the Holocaust is a jarring idea; such representations seem almost sacrilegious. But, if this is what the young can digest, then perhaps it’s a better approach than showing old filmstrips of corpses being pushed into mass graves. The Holocaust, after all, is indescribable, its story in ways untellable. But we had damn better try to tell it. If not, our memories may be lost and our morality will inevitably suffer.
The French government cannot force French parents to teach their children about social responsibility and the difficult notion of the banality of evil, as our American government cannot mandate that American parents talk to their children about AIDS and safe sex practices (not that the Bush regime would want to). So, Sarkozy’s initiative is in ways understandable, even valuable, in the sense that it demands alertness. Yet, his decision to force-feed all 11-year-olds lessons about the Holocaust might be too painful for some.
On the cover of “The Search,” Esther is portrayed as a teenager running from a truckload of Nazis and with a fateful choice to make: to flee or to go to the camps with her family. That the police grant Esther this chance to flee strikes me as unrealistic, but maybe children need to see this sort of option presented. Maybe, as they age, they should be made aware that there really was no choice, for Jews as for many others. Then they can learn the complex idea that no real choice against the Nazis was made by many citizens, who came to be called complicit—which was, of course, a choice itself.
For all of the mistakes that the Germans have made in the past, the comic book might be a better, more responsibly accessible teaching method than that suggested by Sarkozy. In telling Esther’s tale, through a heightened sensitivity to the needs of children, the German approach may well be wise. It emphasizes that moral decisions are up to each and every one of us.