This week, I told my kids about the Holocaust.
Nene is learning about World War II and on our visit to the library, he picked out a book on the subject. He chooses which pages he wants to read and I noticed he tends to pick the ones with weapons. I also sensed some attempt on his part to defend Germany – maybe because in role play at school, he was on the German side, maybe because the sophistication of German weapons fascinated him, maybe because I had pointed out that one of the reasons the German people supported Hitler was because Germany had been so decimated after World War I and people were willing to grasp a narrative that promised a path to glory.
On the other hand, I sensed that the narrative at school was British-centric. I asked him if they had learnt about the Jews and he said no. (I was pretty shocked at the omission of this crucial piece of the picture, but it turns out they were getting to it).
His first question – what are Jews? Fortunately, he had a Jewish friend who had introduced Hanukkah to them in kindergarten so I had a starting point.
Talking about what happened to the Jews during the war was harder than I thought. I think faced with the sheer horror of it, Nene wanted to feel there could have been some escape – “But why didn’t they get there own army and fight back?” The absurdity of Hitler’s project though was immediately clear.
“So Hitler only liked white people… but they are white people,” he said pointing to a picture of Jewish kids in the book.
“They have dark hair… but he has dark hair too.”
We talked about why Hitler hated the Jews, how people sometimes hate what they are most insecure about, how finding an enemy to blame one’s problems on is easier than finding a solution to them (at the personal and country level), and how some people are employing this strategy even today.
We talked about Anne Frank, a kid like them who had to hide for two years, how she eventually died and the power of her diary. (They did talk about this in school later).
I told him about the participation of European colonies in the war, how millions of Indians fought, how Britain promised India independence and reneged.
I told him about the unfortunate situation in Palestine.
It was a big conversation but it didn’t take that long. It was an emotional conversation for me, maybe I have read too much Holocaust literature that I cannot speak of this episode without my voice cracking.
V questions why the focus on the Jewish suffering when there have been comparable horrors elsewhere. It is true that this one is more documented and visible.
In my view, though, no discussion of World War II can happen without it. It is the biggest lesson we have to learn from that war – never forget, never again.
But also, in India today, we have a prime minister who comes from an organisation that admired Hitler and deploys some of the same rhetoric against minority communities.
The same warning signs that I told my son the German people ignored are flashing at us in India as we remain enthralled by visions of civilisation so greatness.