How Do You Talk To A Child About The Holocaust?

The Butterfly Cover (2) (418x540)I never know what books my children will bring home from the school library, which one of them visits on Mondays and the other visits on Wednesdays. This week, one of them borrowed Patricia Polacco’s The Butterfly (2000), which she chose because of its beautiful cover art. It’s always about the cover art, especially for kids.

Too close to bedtime on Wednesday night, my daughter asked me to read it to her. I can’t resist an invitation to read books with her, and she knows it. It’s her go-to delay tactic when it’s time for bed.

I opened the book and noticed that it contained the author’s autograph (just like the book her twin brought home this week). The author added the following message: “Go tell your story.”

Go Tell Your Story Autograph (2)Had I read the summary on the inside flap before we had started reading, I would have known that this story is Polacco’s family’s story. I also would have known that it focuses on a very dark time in our relatively recent past: the Holocaust. It takes place in German-occupied France. Somehow, I missed the partial swastikas on the front and the back of the cover, and I skipped over the title page and the inscription page, both of which I later learned contain swastikas in the illustrations. It was getting late, I still had work to do, and so I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have paid to my daughter’s choice of reading material that night.

I realized that Polacco’s The Butterfly was not the light-hearted children’s book I thought it was only after I’d started reading the story aloud:

The Moon was so radiant, it seemed almost festive. As Monique gazed up at it, she thought that the moon must not know that her village was occupied by Nazi troops. All of France was, for that matter. There was a terrible war raging in what, to Monique, seemed like most of the world.

Skipping over “Nazi,” a word my daughter probably hadn’t heard before, she asked me: “What is war?”

Oh, she is so innocent, and considering the pacifist beliefs of our household, I’d rather she learn about that subject from me. I replied, “It’s when two or more countries fight with each other.”

“Why would they fight? Fighting is bad.”

“Yes, it is,” I said, knowing fully well that World War II and the Holocaust were a different matter. I felt unequipped to expose the nuances of a rule we had taught them: No fighting.

Then came more questions: “Who are the Nazis? Why are they taking Mr. Marks away? What are they going to do to Mr. Marks?”

For a brief moment, I felt like that parent I discussed in my post earlier this week, the woman on a mission to remove Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from a public school district’s 10th grade curriculum. I thought, “I wish S. hadn’t borrowed this book from the library! I’m not ready for this conversation!”

But, of course, I came to my senses. The book is better for slightly older children,* but my daughter wanted to finish what we had started.** Not knowing how she would cope with these themes (and I can only imagine how difficult it must be for children whose relatives actually experienced these atrocities), I resolved to provide as many age-appropriate answers as I could to whatever questions my daughter threw my way. I wanted to reassure her that, even though this story is based on real events, people would never do anything like it again (it wasn’t the time to talk about contemporary human rights violations).

As we continued to read the story–which is so touching that I struggled to blink away my tears as I read the words aloud–we found that the text addressed some of my daughter’s questions. For example, Polacco explains that the Nazis took Monsieur Marks away because he is Jewish. Monique’s mother explains, “The Nazis hate people like Monsieur Marks, ma cherie. It is so pointless and cruel…” S. didn’t fully accept this explanation and followed it up with: “But why did the Nazis hate the Jews?”

How do you explain hate to a small child? I have no difficulty discussing human anatomy and basic sexual reproduction with my children, even at their young age, but pointless and cruel hatred is a much harder subject to discuss — and frankly one I do not understand myself.

*Amazon lists this book as ideal for ages 6-8, but Publishers Weekly says ages 4-8. I’d say it’s better for the later end of that age range.

**Thankfully, the story has a mostly happy ending and the author treats this subject very carefully. Still, I don’t recommend it as bedtime reading. My daughter doesn’t have a history of nightmares (that I know of), but reading it at night probably wasn’t the best parenting choice.


  1. I loved reading this post. I can imagine the shock you had when you realized what the book was about. I think I would have made an attempt to exchange the book if I would have found myself in the same situation (though that might not do any good in the acceptance that it is a normal subject matter)

    1. Thanks for stopping by! “The Butterfly” is a beautiful book, and I’m glad we read it, but I wish I had paid more attention to the subject matter before starting it. I really should have skimmed it beforehand. Oh well!

  2. Don’t beat yourself up — I’m now looking for it and don’t see anything resembling a swastika. I have to say I am surprised this book is intended for such young children — not just because of the frightening subject matter but also a child’s ability to even try and grasp what it means and how it could have happened.

    1. Thanks, Fransi. Yeah, the partial swastikas on the front and back covers aren’t obvious. It’s a beautiful book, and I’m glad we read it, but I do think it’s better for slightly older children.

  3. You handled a difficult situation in a great way. I hope you’re proud of yourself! This was definitely one of those BIG PARENTING MOMENTS. You’ve opened up a dialogue with your kiddo about an important time and about a subject that you’ll come back to time and time again. Good job.

  4. hi, very interesting dilemma. i don’t have kids, so nothing really to add to discussion, but recently came across story of person who as ten years old kid survived concentration camp.
    this person is convinced that those topics should be discussed with kids very early – in her opinion even to 5-6 years old kids.
    personally think it maybe bit too early, but i see her point.

    too fond has good point too. even small kids already know hatred, bulling and violence. this maybe good way to explain those things, that adults actually doesn’t do anything different than kids do to other kids, just tools they use are much more serious.

    being rised in poland i was exposed to holocaust story from early childhood.
    i have no tool to say if it was good or bad. but maybe thanks to that, as adult im more aware, that those things repeats ( for example rwanda ), and any time we let be hatred driven, we risk it may happen again soon around us.

    so maybe its good to let them know. closing eyes doesn’t make world disappear.

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective! It’s very interesting to hear what a Holocaust survivor has said about when children should learn about what happened. I just wish there were good talking points on it (for each age). I struggled to find the right words to say.

        1. sorry for smile, actually its not really adequate emotionicon for this topic.
          i personally believe, best way to explain anything to kids is to tell them as profound truth about what we explain without going into to many details, rather synthesis than analize, so whatever things kid will learn, can put it in some place,and it doesn’t destabilize their whole world.
          actually if you think how to explain ( really explain, not just tell about ) to adult, or even to yourself, then probably you will know how to talk about this with kids.

  5. Wow, what a dilemma – and what good quality observations from your commenters. I don’t believe we ever had to cross that particular bridge with our children. Disturbing though, if as Geneology Lady says, our young people are growing up in ignorance of the Holocaust.

    1. Yes, it’s very sad that children aren’t learning about such an important topic. When I was a kid, we had units on it in 5th and 7th grade. I really hope my children’s district still teaches about it (it’s the same district I attended). It’s a good sign that they have Polacco’s “The Butterfly” in the school library.

  6. I just read an article today about how college students today don’t know much if anything about the holocaust. The implication being that they aren’t being taught about it in school anymore. At which point, I turned to my seventh grader and started grilling her about what she knew about Hitler, the Nazis, Anne Frank, etc. She did not know what the Holocaust was and she had not heard about Anne Frank, even though her fourth grade reading textbook had an excerpt of the diary as a selection. I think they skipped that story. 😦
    I definitely feel your pain. Finding a balance between history and tempering it to the level of a young person’s understanding is really hard at times.

    1. Oh, that is depressing! We shouldn’t forget this history. It sounds like it’s one of many deficits we have in our education. I had units on the Holocaust and World War II (including Pearl Harbor, Japanese internment, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in 5th grade, when we read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. I also read Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose around then, but I can’t remember whether it was required or suggested reading in the curriculum. We returned to these subjects in later years, and, for example, read The Dairy of Anne Frank in 7th Grade. I hope our district hasn’t changed the way they teach these subjects!

    1. Yeah, it was a difficult conversation! I just wasn’t expecting it. I really should have skimmed through the book when they came home just to prepare myself for the types of questions I might get. That’s what I will do from now on. I hope you’re having a great weekend!

  7. This reminds me of my experience of seeing the Costa-Gavras film Missing when I was a young boy. It was incomprehensible to me that such things could happen–and the film was very intimate about it all too. I think my mother wanted to see it, since Mr. Gavras was a well-regarded Greek, which was her native ethnicity. I don’t know if she knew what it was all about, but I myself anyway was unprepared for the bleakness of it. I have since come to regard the film highly, but at a young age I couldn’t process it: at least not without some guidance.

    Nice post.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I can relate to how difficult it would be for a child to process a movie as emotional and bleak as “The Missing.” Movies were always playing at my house (one of my parents is a documentary filmmaker and a film professor), and sometimes I’d be playing with toys or with my sisters in the background (or hearing it from the next room). I’d absorb only parts of the movies, but sometimes that was enough to confuse me. My parents were good at answering my questions, but I think I mostly interpreted what I saw or heard on my own.

  8. I don’t have kids, so I’m abstracting here, but it’s fascinating to me how kids learn about the world, learn what’s real, what other people are like, through the stories of the adults in their lives. One of my high school students just today was telling me she developed her religious beliefs by listening to the adults in her church talk about their religious beliefs and experiences. I don’t have much experience explaining the basic realities of the world to children, but my high schoolers generally do have their own beliefs, which beliefs I enjoy getting the students to analyze and even, maybe, question. Interesting stuff.

    1. That’s very interesting. I can’t remember exactly how I developed the beliefs I have, though my parents were a major influence. I suppose my children will pick up bits and pieces from many different people in their lives. I hope that what their father and I are teaching them is rational enough to deserve their acceptance.

  9. I remember reading two books about the holocaust as a child– “Number the Stars” and “Jacob’s Rescue.” I was completely fascinated by both and reread them numerous times over the years. I don’t know if I just had some sort of morbid fascination, but it seems like young children have an odd capacity to understand these things on a certain level– if they are presented correctly.

    1. I loved “Number the Stars”! I read it in fifth grade, when we had units on World War II and the Holocaust. I also read “Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen around then. I’ll have to look into “Jacob’s Rescue.” Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Wow! Tough parenting time. Yeesh. I think you handled it well. To add my two cents, perhaps go with her lack of understanding why they could hate someone. Yes, it doesn’t make any sense. That’s why we must not judge people based on their religion or their race or anything else. We have to get to know each person individually. There are good and bad people of every race and religion, and we certainly can’t be like the Nazis and judge them all as bad because we had a bad experience with one. We have to always find out for ourselves what kind of person each person is, no matter what “group” they belong to. Something like that.

    I still think you did marvelously though. Always easy to say what you’d do after the fact vs. in the moment.

    1. Yeah, it was a tough conversation! I tried to say something along the lines of what you suggested, but I was nowhere near as eloquent as you were in this comment. I really felt like I was on the spot, and I wish I had given myself a bit more time to think it through. I’m going to try to remember to skim through their library books as soon as they bring them home just to prepare myself for the types of questions they might ask. I hope you’re having a nice weekend!

      1. Thanks I did. I still think you did great for on the spot. Although 100% frustrating for me, on the spot is still nice because it shows you what’s inside when you’re not prepared. That’s why I think you did great based on what you told us. Sounds like the good stuff is inside, even if you feel it’s imperfect. 🙂

  11. That’s a tough subject, and not just for kids. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around hatred of one group toward another. Maybe it’s because I’m not religious. I was raised Lutheran but it never took. 🙂 Too Fond makes a great point in her comment.

    1. Yeah, hatred is incomprehensible. What’s scary is that so many seemingly rational people either joined the Nazi Party or allowed it to rise. Still, even in that climate of fear and hatred, there were people who resisted the Nazis, and The Butterfly profiles one of those families. Have you ever seen The Mitchell and Webb Look? One of their skits always comes to mind for me whenever I think about the rise of the Nazis (obviously, it’s not a laughing matter, but Mitchell and Webb manage it somehow):

  12. I agree that hate is hard to explain to young children, but I think that from a very young age they can understand the notion of people being bullied or picked on. Maybe you could approach it from that point of view–how people sometimes treat those who are weaker or smaller than them in a way that they shouldn’t, because it makes them feel powerful or better about themselves. About how it’s our job as human beings to protect those who can’t protect themselves, even if that sometimes means standing up to bullies and fighting.

    1. Thanks, Beth! This is great advice. What’s nice is that it complements the anti-bullying program that my children’s school has been doing.

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