Just the other day I asked my 15-year-old son if he'd like to visit the National Holocaust Museum. He had a few days between the end of school and the launch of his summer plans. Our last visit to the museum has become something of a family "joke": A decade ago I took him (age 5) and his older sister (then 7) to visit the children's section of the museum. Although that exhibit is geared to a more youthful audience, it was still nightmarish and chilling to such young imaginations.
Called "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story," the exhibit tracks the fate of an ordinary German schoolboy who is eventually deported with his family to Auschwitz. You begin in a replica of the boy's bedroom--just like any other, comfortably furnished, with toys, books, mementos--and then proceed through a series of rooms that re-create the rise of German anti-semitism, from the cracked shop windows of Kristalnaacht, to the typical quarters of a family now living in the ghetto, and eventually to the concentration camp itself. The journey is narrated by poignant, and often harrowing, excerpts from the boy's diary, a la Anne Frank.
My children could not sleep properly for weeks afterwards. My husband (born Jewish)--who'd not received an advance warning of our little excursion--was flabbergasted that I would think that this had been a good idea. Still imbued with the zeal of a convert, I insisted it was important for our children to understand this aspect of their religious heritage. It being 1998, antisemitism--especially in North America--seemed as much a thing of the past as the grainy black-and-white photographs depicting trainloads of passengers in old-fashioned dress, being loaded to their doom.
My husband shook his head. "Yes, it's never too early to let them know how loathed Jews have been." He suggested a corrective field trip to the Israeli embassy, where they might glimpse more positive images of Jews defending themselves. I bristled--but guiltily (isn't that emotion also integral to the Jewish identity?). It was stupid of me. For years I regretted the ghastly pictures I'd imported into my children's minds.
Now fast forward: The little boy who once asked, plaintively, grasping my hand, "Mommy, why do people want to kill the Jews?" is now taller than I. He recently (as in, during the most recent conflict in January) accompanied our Rabbi on a tour of Gaza and visited with Israeli victims of suicide bombings and other acts of terror. Post 9/11, he's witnessed the rise of worldwide, and often officially sanctioned, antisemitism in cities where we once thought it had been eradicated--London, Paris, Berlin. Closer to our home in D.C., he's watched cement barricades go up around the Jewish schools he attended in pre-K and elementary. The playgrounds are now screened from the street. The front classroom windows are darkened so as to impede visibility from the outside. We no longer remark on the police cruiser that sits outside our shul on major Jewish holidays: private security is now as central to the celebration of Rosh Hashanah as apples and honey.
So when free time arose this week, I proposed he and I go back to the museum so he could see it through more mature, less vulnerable , eyes. He was keen to visit this time--and ribbed me again about inflicting it upon him when he was so young.
We were thinking of going today or tomorrow. It's a good thing that we procrastinated. Who would have imagined that the sentiments we'd once thought were so safely encased as historical exhibits would blast forth and shatter through the museum itself?
And what would I answer now to my son's haunting question: "Mommy, why do people want to kill the Jews?"