Jessica Helfand | Essays

Viewer Discretion Advised

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Education , History

Comments [21]

Once again, adults underestimate the capacity of children to absorb and process information. Once again, politicians wish to gain standing by mollifying their base with promises of safety and comfort for children. Once again, people who like to complain have a reason.

The more we hide from reality as children, the harder it is for us to face it in the future.

To this day some of the most thought provoking books are banned in classrooms around the world. This idea of censorship isn't new. It's always been used as an agent of control for the sake of "safety", and always will be.

I think it's a creative way to teach a powerful message. We shouldn't skirt progressive things like this for the sake of avoiding discomfort. Covering issues like the holocaust superficially is more offensive.
Berae McClary

Don't forget Boltanski. Saw his stuff at the Kemper, Kansas City. Moving! Kids should know about this stuff.


Joe Moran

PREFACE:::this was out in the Boonies of Kentucky just before the turn of the millenium. Michael Beirut might know the place being familiar with Cincinnati and the thereabouts of the I75 t corridor (other wise know as "how the heck did we miss the riverfront and end up in KY" road) I don't think we had but a handful of Jewish people in our entire district besides the newly hired district superintendent of schools.

The Holocaust was covered in our American middle school from what I know. Two of my kids had passed through the program already. Diversity upstanding, the kids were taken to Camp Joy in Ohio to relive slavery as 12 years olds. As thirteen year olds they read Anne Frank and participated in some kind of learning activity. I was an eighth grade teacher of one class of German. That year the school had a learning program where they picked a few eighth graders, thirteen year olds, to be Jews for a day with starred armbands. The teachers and fellow students were allowed for one day to make these students do whatever they demanded. I am sure there were guidelines but I wasn't aware of any. See, I only taught that one class per day and no one let me in on the program. Later the teacher in charge apologized that she hadn't told me, but I am still suspicious it was part of the Nazi plan.

That day I had started my lesson. I asked some armbanded students for answers. They weren't allowed to answer, or they had been told they could not participate. I asked again. Some fellow students let me in on the master plan. I said I could give a hoot, the teachers didn't include me in their plan, so we were going to proceed as normal. Some of the star-armbanded students refused to break their code of the plan.

The kicker in all this was reality, yea reality. I, by ancestry am of eastern European descent. These were honor students, and here I was, the non schooled, emergency certified teacher, a displaced Pole so to speak, teaching them their language: German with no regards to what their other teachers had planned. Those students had learned well about Jews being killed, plus a few gypsies and homosexuals as a sideline. They told me that much. I am not so sure that they realized that equal amounts of slavs were involved. Slavs that very much had the same ethnic look of the person standing infront of them, the one saying I didn't care what the other teachers said. This is when I became weary of how the Holocaust was taught in schools. This is when I questioned, Hey, what's going on? Is it really important the number of jews? Isn't it more important that the slavs just moved on and weren't really mentioned in history? That is part of their independent and separated from each other nature?

What is that you say?

Yours is not to question why, yours is just to do or die.

I wasn't a very good teacher. They didn't invite me back to emergency certified status the next year. I wasn't going back if they asked anyway.

After all my taxes, teachers fees, and gas money was deducted from my actual monetary value the district paid me, I had enough leftover to buy my first 2.1 megapixel digital camera. At least that has been a path I enjoy and any indoctrination of truths or consequences of such are for my private illusions.
a story

When I was that age I was reading Art Spiegelman’s seminal graphic interpretation of the Holocaust, Maus. Some pages of Maus are emotionally overwhelming for adults, and I’m pretty sure that any trauma I felt was worth the message I got out of reading it. Kids can handle the Holocaust, especially if they’re spared the grisly details of Zyklon B and the incinerators.

I think it would be even better to address the genocide and oppression that aren’t popular causes. How about teaching kids to identify with victims of the starvation of the Ukraine, contemporary Chinese minorities, or what oil-rich nations are doing to gays? The world is a very fucked-up place, and kids in Western Europe and North-America are the exception that they don’t grow up around violence, disease, starvation, oppression, and other evils. Perhaps raising our children to understand what goes on in the world will inspire them to do a much better job of making it better than we do.
james puckett

Whether or not a 10 year old "can take it" is not really the issue. I'm glad a lot of people here comment with pride what they were exposed to when they were 10, and that was during the strict censorship era, so we at least know that "parental discretion is advised" is not really effective. So if it's not effective in preventing anything, but will keep the pro-censorship people happy... why not keep it?

Anyway, I want to mention about the importance of educating them about these things.

One factor that makes it the most difficult when trying to figure out what children feel is the fact that children lie about how they feel, especially boys.

And I think there are very few things that they will admit disturbed them, probably gay stuff, because it is "cool" to be disgusted by gays.

Anyway, that's a whole other story. I think kids today try desperately to get themselves desensitize to almost anything. Just look at what is posted on the internet. How old do you think the people who post picture of mutilated bodies from road accident, odd skin condition, and constant revival of sexist (get back to the kitchen) and racist (pool's close) remarks are? My guest is not more than 15.

If it's disturbed you (adults), they will look at it, and make sure it doesn't disturb them. That's how boys work.

But a picture of a dead body is nothing like viewing a real dead body. Playing Rainbow Six is nothing like being on a real SWAT unit. And stealing car and running away from cops in Grand Theft Auto (best game ever), is nothing like that in real life.
I know you know that, but what you have to realize is, kids know that, believe it or not they do.

Sometime, we come across a case where it seems like a kid doesn't know that. When he, let say, shoots up his classmates for making fun of his hat. But as sad a case as it is, we have to put it into perspective, how HUGE the United States of America is. How many kids there are, and how many kids actually get... you know, defected.

And you may say "one kids went bonkers is enough press for change." Well, that proves to me you know nothing about statistic and probability, but I appreciate sentimentality towards children, we need some more of that, truly.

But if we really care about kids, then we have to protect them. I think for the holocaust, it's good for them to know because it shows them that evil is really evil.

Evil is not a cat trying to eat a mouse, or a monstrous wizard try to steal a sacred crystal or whatever. People do awful thing to other people, and to children.

And it also shows that sometime their parents are incapable of saving their kids.

Just today, just now, just before I come to DesignObserver, I read an article on CNN about a family abusing, beating, and shooting at a pregnant woman to death. There were two adults, three teenager, and one 12 year old boy. They are going to charge the 12 year old boy as a juvenile.
This is clearly a parents' fault. Not the "parents let me watch Natural Born Killer so now I shoot my classmate" parents' fault, or "parents won't buy me a PS3 so I shoot my parents" parents' fault. This is really truly parents' fault because they probably coerced the kid into doing the crime.

Although I would love to consider the idea that other family members would blame the 12 year old kid saying "it was all his idea", but we all know that's not the case.

But can you really blame the 12 year old? It's not his job to be a "good guy" and, you know, not torture with his parents. We tell kids all the time:

"Obey your parents kids. Don't runaway from home"

Their parents are evil. What do you want the kid to do? I am sure what happen to the kid won't be in the headlines anymore, but it makes you wonder now. His belief system since childhood are gone and we all know prison doesn't rehabilitate anyone.

Heck, may be reading about holocaust may turn them into Neo-Nazis (who said they have to be smart). I myself reject 70% of what the adults in my school try to cram down my throat. Who knows. But that's the chance we have to take. That's because bottom line is, withholding the truth for any reason is bad. Try to think of a good scenario where you say to a person "we lied to you because we know what's good for you." Sound like a certain administration.

I don't like the idea of a child looking at some adult on the street and he or she immediately think that he will be nice to them, or that if they get lost, the man will help them find a way home.

We've been telling children not to get into car with strangers. We tell them that the man will take them away from their parents.

But then again, the parents won't let them play Wii until they finish their homework. May be we should tell them where the strangers would like to take them.

But then, with that, adding to bunch of news story every morning about how everything in your bedroom can kill you, may be we are looking at a truly paranoid generation. But I think a good kid should be a pessimist (to a certain degree).

It's when we become adult that we should learn to be optimistic... you know, for the sake of our blood pressure.

Panasit Ch

As an Israeli raised in Israel, we have Holocaust memorials in school every year since 1st grade, and we hear the stories of Holocaust surviver first hand at school. I think it would be quit silly to say that all Israeli kids are brought up traumatized..
Ran Segall

I have had the privilege to study the Holocaust in many electives while in college. From classes on the religion, to entire electives focusing on the Holocaust I can say that I have been able to acquire a wealth of information about the events. I would read the cringing portrayals of the events that took place, the discrimination, and devaluing destruction of human life. I even visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum surrounding myself with the tangible artifacts that remain of the most tumultuous period in modern history. It was grim—the stories, the pictures, and the reenactment-like displays that attempt to place the visitors in the shoes of the victims.
Then something happened that changed my life and put into perspective everything that happened in the Holocaust. It was not something I read, or an artifact that was preserved over time to make the events more real.
There is a display at the museum with pictures of the marks left on the hands of victims surviving at the time of the Museums creation. Permanent reminders left on the victims of the nightmare they lived. I stood looking at the wall of hands, thinking what it must be like to be reminded of a time like that everyday. A few minutes went by and I found myself surrounded by a group of school children on a trip, some teachers, and, in front of me, an elderly man. I watched as he walked up to the wall, rolled up his sleeve and held his hand up next to a picture.
They matched.
Suddenly the insignificance of everything that I had been through in my life flushed over me. I was speechless. The hundreds of pages I had read, the interviews I watched, and the displays I saw meant nothing looking into the eyes of this survivor.
I introduced myself to him and found out that he was with the school group. Every year or so, the school (i do not recall what grade it was) takes a trip with a survivor to the museum. As the group continued on, I was left talking with the teacher of the group and the survivor. "What do I say?," I thought. There is nothing I could possibly ask the man standing in front of me that I did not see in his eyes, feel in his hunched shoulders, or experience in his hand shake. "Thank you," I said. He acknowledged my gratitude, as did the teacher, as we parted ways.
The truth is, there is no amount of literature, association, or reenactment-like demonstrations that can bear the feelings of the victims, but we must always remember them and educate ourselves and future generations, whatever the means.

When I was a grade school student, deep in the Midwest, a Holocaust survivor came to speak to our class. She was probably a young woman during WWII, and had moved to Iowa to raise her family. Someone asked her how the concentration camp changed her, and she answered that she could no longer laugh.

I was about ten years old, and I still remember that question and answer vividly. I realized then, and understand even more now, how fortunate I was to have that experience at a young age.

In my fifth grade year, students all over the nation were tying yellow ribbons around everything to show support for the soldiers in Operation Desert Storm. It seemed so far away that I couldn't grasp how this was wartime when I was happily living in the abundance of the U.S. As we started learning more about world history, my teacher candidly detailed her family's experience in the Japanese American internment camp during the second World War. She also told us that she had received a reparation check signed by President H. W. Bush for $20,000, which she refuses to cash in. I immediately understood the point that forgiveness can not be bought, and that history happens to everyone.

Jessica, it seems that what you are talking about is, in part, interpretation. What do we tell ten year old children about these horrors; how do we help them understand the meaning? Kids are exposed to so much appalling violence in the news media and entertainment, not to mention in their history lessons, that they must really need considerable help interpreting and understanding.

But, the questions remain: Is ten years too young to learn about the holocaust? About 9/11? Kent State? Is it too young to watch the evening news or one of the many violent popular TV programs? Too young to play graphically violent video games? I would emphatically say yes too all of those questions--especially if there is no strong effort to offer interpretation, support, compassion, and understanding.

And, "viewer discretion advised" seems like a cowardly way to avoid offering any interpretation. It's like saying: "We've done our part to warn you not to watch, so if you do, then you are on your own. Good luck." Somehow, it just doesn't work to say that, but then just put the stuff out there for people to deal with on their own. All too often, no interpretation or efforts to aid understanding are offered.

It's hard to tell from the NYT article whether or not Sarkozy's plan offers enough interpretation. Are the kids going to really be helped to grasp the meaning of the holocaust? Or are they simply going to end up terrified that a Nazi is hiding under their bed? Merely making children learn the unbearably tragic stories of children murdered in the holocaust is not necessarily going to produce the first (desired) result. And, absent sufficient interpretation, learning these stories could well produce the second (undesirable) result.
Rob Henning

There seems to be this insistence in the industrialized (first world, the west, whatever you want to call it) with having children see the world through rose colored glasses. While we debate about ten year olds learning about the holocaust, there are plenty of ten year olds in the developing world (also referred to the third world or "other" world) who have witnessed unspeakable horrors. Whether it be genocide (Sudan), war(pick a region), poverty, or slavery. These children do not have this luxury.

I applaud Sarkozy's idea. When I was ten, I was fortunate to have valuable family support that insisted that I learn about the world, warts and all. I personally feel this has had a profound effect of having an appreciation for what I have, not to mention, a greater sense of right and wrong. Let's be real. While this is an awakening, I say we up the ante and teach these children about the world as it is now. While the conventional mantra has been "The future is the children", how prepared are they going to be if we assume that by sheltering them from these realities they will have any sense of responsibility and compassion?

I can't say whether or not exposing children to the grim realities of the Holocaust would be harmful. I suppose for some it would and some it wouldn't.

My main concern, though, is one of focus. I'm more inclined to support educational policies which place a greater emphasis on examining root causes of human tragedies (Holocaust or otherwise) and possible ways to avoid such tragedies, rather than getting fixated on the gory details.

And given the current political climate, I'm also somewhat skeptical when certain politicians focus exclusively on the Holocaust, in what may be seen as an attempt to arouse public sympathies in support of their Middle Eastern policies.

Long story short, I think we need to consider other issues beyond the fragility of a child's psyche before excepting or rejecting Mr. Sarkozy's educational plan.
Craig Schlanser

Our little river overflowed in town. It's a tiny bit skin crawling that you sorta know there has got to be a bit of sewage and crap mixed in with the power and beauty of water shimmering in the sun. I went out there (with my now 7.1 megapixel digital camera for one quarter the price of that first one) and took pictures.

There was a father with a young four year old out there teaching. I'll call it teaching. Maybe he was just taking an early afternoon walk and pointing at stuff. It was I who imagined he was teaching the child the beauty of it all or maybe the sassiness of nature to over extend its bounds. Who knows? I didn't ask. I didn't even take their picture, though, I was tempted. I just know when we were both on the higher ridge the little gal turned around and smiled at me. I guessed she was having a good time.

Either way, it wasn't a classroom and she wasn't of school age. But with a parent like that, the experience will probably be a series of ones in her life that will make her understand the world even if she is from a privileged, protected western world. And I felt lucky for her because she was the only child out there so young and getting such a wonderful lesson from her parent.

secretly, I also hope our education system and its politics doesn't ruin it for her, either.
a less interesting story

Seems to me this is less about a design issue as it is an opportunity for the author to rail on a political figure she doesn't like. Perhaps if a good old-fashioned European socialist had suggested this idea, Ms. Helfand might approve.

John, you seemed to have missed the point entirely in your eagerness to... do whatever weird sort of political sniping you wanted to do. My impression is that Ms. Helfland is agreeing with Sarkozy's plan. Where do you see otherwise?

Now, step slowly down from the soap box.
Chris Rugen

Every time when someone wants to deliver "the truth" to children, they need to reveal all of it.
Not just reveal one truth "Santa Clause is not real", and when they ask follow up question, follow with a lie "they probably just want kids to behave....".

The mos dangerous thing is not people not listening to news, or people listen to too much news. The problem with the world is because people are reading only HALF the news.

I ask my friends now, even now they still think Heath Ledger OD'd on Cocaine or Heroin.

They read the news. They knew Heath Ledger died, and they knew there drug in the headlines. They refused to read the entire story, or follow up the same story the later week when the coroner decide to release the autopsy report. Etc.

If holocaust were to be taught, then the Nazi better be taught, and also World War II, and of course, where do Nazi's motivation comes from, which is the result of the punishment resulting from World War I, and what caused WWI. If they hate an entire people belong to one religion, what is their religion. History of Jewish people. Etc.

Nazi are evil, but there is no such thing as evil without reason. They are not all born tiny little Damian from the Omen.

Kids are surrounded by parents, teachers, and cartoons, telling them what is right and what is wrong. And most of the time, they associated that with what is good and what is evil.

The idea of pure good (parents will always love you), or pure evil (bad seed, anti christ, kill him/her before they are even born) are easier to explain but is oh so wrong. To tell them that these children were killed by the Nazi because Nazi are just damn evil fellas is nothing different than not telling them about it altogether.
Panasit Ch

Meanwhile in Gaza...
David Smith

I think it's a wonderful idea. As mentioned in some comments above, we study the lives of all kinds of people in history, whether they are victims or not, in order to understand how history is made.

You had me until

"scores of disgruntled gunmen mowing down a crowd of unsuspecting holiday shoppers, or innocent college students, or young, sleeping children?"

Scores? Last I knew, a score was twenty. Scores? That would mean at least 40. If you wish to be considered seriously, I suggest cooling the hyperbole!

1942-1933 = 9 years old

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