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Our relatives survived the Holocaust. How do we tell kids about antisemitism?

Be ready with specifics that answer the question, 'What will we do?'
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

This story was originally published in 2017 and has been updated in the wake of antisemitic vandalism and incidents across the country.

Parents of every faith have been watching the uptick in antisemitic vandalism and incidents across the country with the same thought: How will I explain this to my children?

Stacey Steinberg unintentionally watched news coverage of the Nazi symbols and rhetoric of those marching in the Charlottesville rally in 2017 with her 11-year-old beside her. "I wasn't planning on watching it at that moment, but the news was on in the background while we were doing other things," Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville, Florida, told TODAY Parents. "I didn't know whether to change the channel or call his attention to the news. I chose the latter. And then we spent a lot of time talking about what we saw."

Afterwards, Steinberg picked up the phone and called her 98-year-old grandfather, Oscar Deutsch, who was a teenager when the Nazis came to power and survived the Holocaust along with her grandmother, Gisella Deutsch.

Stacey Steinberg's grandmother, Gisella Deutsch, with her children, ages 11, 6, and 4.Courtesy of Stacey Steinberg

"I wanted to know how he felt watching all of this unfold. Specifically, I wanted to know if he was fearful. I also wanted to ask him for advice for how to talk to my children, since he was just a teenager when the war broke out," said Steinberg.

"He was surprisingly calm and thinks we are safe for the time being — 'at least 50 more years,' he said. But he does think that history will eventually repeat itself. His words were, 'People will forget. They always do,'" she said.

"He said, 'If antisemitism is not stopped right away, it can come back. People will forget what happened and it will start all over again.'"

Stacey Steinberg's grandparents, Oscar and Gisella Deutsch, survived the Holocaust in Europe. Her grandfather was the first person she called after she watched news coverage of the rally in Charlottesville that featured neo-Nazi symbols and speech and ended in violence.Courtesy of Stacey Steinberg

Steinberg's husband, Ben, has introduced the concept of the Nazis to their 11-year-old. "The singular idea that he is old enough to appreciate is this: There are absolute evils. Evils for which there is are no equivalents. Nazis are an absolute evil. White supremacists are an absolute evil," he said.

"I explain that it is because these are absolute that the response to them must be equally absolute. Even acquiescence to them cannot be tolerated. That is not what we stand for and that is not what our country stands for," said Ben Steinberg.

Stacey Steinberg's grandfather, Oscar Deutsch, told her that if antisemitism is not stopped right now, it will "start all over again."Courtesy of Stacey Steinberg

How to talk about it

Child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa, who is a Jewish parent, said that neurotypical children are usually able to start understanding larger, scary issues and separate them from their day-to-day existence when they are about 8 years old.

"As parents, we usually shy away from introducing subjects about which we ourselves have no good answers," she told TODAY Parents. "But, in that way, the lessons of history would be lost. So we have to tackle the big topics. Luckily, there are a lot of great resources for teaching children about the Holocaust."

Gilboa said she understands how hard subjects are for parents to introduce to their children, but she suggests parents start by giving kids the short version of the facts and be ready for questions. "'Why?' is the hardest, but it's one we can just explain that we don't know," she said.

"'What are we going to do?' is the best question, and one we should be ready to answer," said Gilboa, "Whether at a personal level, like, 'We're going to learn and pray and live our lives proudly,' or at the social action level, 'We're going to speak out and stand up!' Be ready with a few specifics, because our kids deserve our best."

Protecting their innocence

Michael Fox, a middle school social studies teacher in Brooklyn, New York, and father to an 8-year-old with his wife, Jenna, has not discussed the neo-Nazi activity in Charlottesville or the Holocaust with his son, even though he has relatives on both sides of his family who survived. His son is simply not ready to know that kind of evil exists in his world yet, Fox said.

"It's too sad and horrible to bring that up now with him, when I know it’s coming in a year or two anyway. It will come up — it has to come up — he just doesn’t know about it yet," he said.

Hanny Newlander and her husband, Jamison, struggle with how much to tell their children, Nathan, 9, and Azi, 4, about the recent displays of anti-Semitism in America.Hanny Newlander / Hanny Newlander

Hanny and Jamison Newlander of Los Angeles have not talked about the Nazi activity in Charlottesville with their sons, Nathan, 9, or Azi, 4, either.

"Our 4-year-old is too young to understand it, and we feel that Nathan is also not ready to learn this ugly lesson," Hanny told TODAY Parents.

Newlander said she has started introducing her older son to the issues raised by Charlottesville for the past few years, however. "We've talked about the civil rights movement, specifically the power of peaceful protest, and the injustice of people having different rights based on their skin color," she said. "We've talked about religious discrimination, especially against Muslims. And we have started to introduce what happened in the Holocaust just a little bit."

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The Newlanders struggle with how much to share with their children, whose grandfather survived the Holocaust. "We want them to maintain a vision of the world as a safe place until they get older," she said. "And I recognize that our skin color affords us the privilege to not expose our children to the harsh realities of racism and discrimination that are coming to the surface with increasing frequency."

Hanny Newlander said that for now, she and her husband are trying to strike a balance in parenting their children through this recent spate of scary news. "We try to build a foundation so that our children will be prepared for that world, but not so traumatized that they can't act to make it a better place," she said. "And that is our greatest hope for our children."