Thanks for some great literature suggestions.
Also, I found this link to the Holocaust Museum's Teacher's Guide which has some really insightful tips on how to go about discussing the holocaust in a sensitive and meaningful way.
Because of who my kid is and who I am, I feel the need to be honest about the situation. I respect that not everyone would let their kids know about things like that so early, but I feel certain that it is the right thing for our family.
She already knows generalities about what happened in the holocaust. Thus far I've kept it simple and focused on people's choices to either cooperate or resist.
I don't believe in intentionally confronting children with brutality in order that they "learn" the ways of the world, but neither do I believe in sheltering them from the truth, especially in a context such as this. Often you have an opportunity in life to experience something of tremendous value that is also painful.
My daughter has always wanted with all her heart to be in a stage play.
Now she has the opportunity to be in a play that is incredibly powerful, with a supportive and interesting group of people, that touches on really critical historical events and moral issues and is intelligent, funny, and life-affirming as well as heart-breaking. What she has to gain from this experience is monumental, so I am choosing to allow her to also experience grief about this unimaginable tragedy in our world's recent past. While it brings up big feelings, I don't think learning about a painful history is going to traumatize her the way that the experience of actually being unsafe traumatizes people.
I think there are ways that we adults can use language that makes these topics more manageable for children to process, and that reassure them that they are protected, and that there are always positive things going on spiritually and practically that are a comfort in the face of the bad things that happen in the world.
My approach is right now is to try to offset the very real tragedy of the play with stories that give meaning to the historical events. Stories that celebrate the cultures of Europe (Jewish and gentile), that profile interesting and good people from that time period, stories that focus on resistance efforts and escapes, or that focus on the importance of honoring the tragedy in some way. (Six Million Paper Clips is a great example of this- it is once removed from the events itself, but honors the memory.)
I've read a fair amount about trauma, and worked with trauma survivors. Nowhere have I ever heard of a person developing PTSD from learning about a tragic historical event as a child. However, many many people will experience a life-altering trauma before becoming an adult. That is something that we as parents cannot
prevent, and to pretend the danger of this is not real is to do a disservice to our children. One of my goals as a parent is to help my kids develop the resiliency and emotional strength they need for life's difficulties.
Studies show that one of the greatest factors in someone's resiliency during trauma is their ability to hold on to meaning in a traumatic situation.
Therefore, we have a great opportunity when we look at a situation that is tragic but no longer happening to give our child tools that can help them should they ever face a traumatic event in their own lives.
It is also an opportunity to help them develop the moral clarity that could prevent such an event from happening in the future. They may be called upon to do this even as young people, and we must not underestimate their power or importance in the world. When it comes to developing moral clarity, we simply have no time to waste, IMO.