How do you explain the Holocaust to a child?
That's what I tried to do, a few years ago, to my young niece and nephew who asked me who Hitler was. Looking back, I know I held back and I didn't exactly ruthlessly acquaint them with the worst of the knowledge, but I probably didn't really understand that I was interrupting their happy childhood with sudden knowledge of evil. They knew about death, which is big enough on its own, but murder? The murder of millions? That's QUITE a leap.
I didn't understand, because Hitler is so ingrained in my culture now. He's a word that everyone knows and even if they don't know much, they know enough.
So I've been wondering. I study history, I study mostly Soviet history from a British/Western perspective with a little bit of Nazi Germany thrown in - and I don't know when I first learned about this awful thing which is a little bit like the end of innocence. I don't know when I first heard of Stalin. It can't have been very long ago. When I was growing up, the Cold War was over; by the time I was five, the Soviet Union was non-existent; Communism wasn't part of my consciousness like it must have been for older children.
But I think a lot of what I learned came through novels. Such as Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword.
Set in Poland, this is about three children whose father and mother are taken by the Nazis and are left to survive in a country occupied by the Nazis.
I loved this book. I'd always loved books about the children taking charge or running away or something like that, and I think the deeper themes went right over my head. Moreover, it's not the darkest of dark books, and not really about the Holocaust.
The Diary of Anne Frank, however.
I think probably all of us have read this diary, but I will summarise it just in case. Anne Frank, a Jewish girl hiding in the attic of an Amsterdam building with her family, writes a diary chronicling their life of secrecy. It ends just before the Franks are captured by the Gestapo and taken away to different concentration camps. Anne ended her life in Bergen-Belsen, after contracting typhus.
The funny thing about this book - and the thing that I like about it as a record of Nazi crimes - is that it is about a normal girl, who has a crush on a boy, who finds her mother annoying, but this is so compounded by their existence living in each other's pockets that she sometimes comes across as rather nasty towards her mother. And this was a crime of the Nazis too - such an unnecessary imprisonment, so disruptive of family ties. All the same, it is sometimes a tame portrayal of the Holocaust, especially for a nine-year-old girl who is reading it without an understanding of what being caught by the Gestapo meant. Who reads, at the end, that Anne died in Bergen-Belsen of typhus but who doesn't understand this, or the concept of concentration camps, or the enormity of the situation Anne found herself in.
Other books I read were books like Goodnight, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, which is a fantastic portrayal of a little boy who is evacuated from London to the countryside during the war, but which is more about his sad family life than the war. Or I saw movies like The Sound of Music, in which Captain von Trapp and Maria declare that it would be impossible to work with the Nazis, and to flee the country was preferable, and so I thought that good, nice people didn't go along with the Nazis, only nasty people who spoke in very clipped accents, like a machine.
Then the closest I came to finding out anything about Soviet Russia was in The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig.
Esther Hautzig and her parents were Polish deportees to Siberia during the war, but I can't remember much about her story other than that it was about the war. The fact that it took place in Russia obviously did not impress itself upon me very much.
In fact, I think the first I ever heard of the intense history of the Soviet Union was at age fifteen, reading George Orwell's Animal Farm for English at school.
Unlike the other books I've mentioned (not that there's anything wrong with their limited points of view), I think Orwell got it spot on. I am more and more amazed as I find out more because it's confusing enough as it is, with hindsight, but Orwell got it right, at the time, when almost everyone else was wrong, though in different, contradictory ways. His portrayal of Communism going rotten intrigued me. I didn't learn much more about Russian history until the next year at school, and that was a unit in History on the events leading up to the Revolution, but obviously something stuck, because I'm a full-time aficionado of Russian history now.
It's funny though - when I think back and realise how long it took me to know anything at all about the Holocaust, about the evils of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, I realise how much I asked of my niece and nephew. When I came back from Europe last year, and showed the same nephew my photos, which included photos of Auschwitz, he was very, very subdued, and I heard that he had watched the film "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas", which does not hold back at all, and I thought: Great. How wonderful that he knows. He needs to know. He should know. It is right and proper that his innocence should be interrupted.
But he knows far more already than I knew at his age. And I'm training to be a historian. And I wonder - how much does a child need to be pummelled into understanding?