I think it’s safe to say that most American children learn about the Holocaust sometime in late elementary or early middle school (around grades 5-7). And I think it’s also safe to say that for most of them, their first introduction to the Holocaust is via the Diary of Anne Frank.
My own experience was different, because one of my neighbors was a Holocaust survivor and it was from him that I first heard what had happened to the Jews of Europe–not in full detail, of course, because I was only about eight years old. But one day while I was visiting a friend’s house, his father Eddie Willner (Mr. Willner to me, of course) came home from work. I noticed that he had a scar on the back of his head and being eight, I spoke right up and asked him about it.
He sat me down and explained to me that when he was a teenager, he had been taken prisoner in Germany by the Nazis who were running the government and that when he and some other prisoners escaped, he got that scar. I asked him why he was a prisoner and he told me it was because he was Jewish. Being eight and living in a very waspy suburb, the only thing I knew about Jews was that Jesus and his followers were Jewish, so I said something to the effect of, “You mean Jewish like in the Bible?” He nodded and said, “Yes, like that.”
This, of course, didn’t satisfy me, so I asked why being Jewish would get him arrested. He then gave me a very short eight-year-old-friendly version of the Nazis and their hatred for the Jews and that this hatred had resulted in lots and lots of Jewish people dying. I still remember his face and how serious he was when he told me all of this. Needless to say, it made a big impression on me. And when, several years later, it was my turn to read the Diary of Anne Frank, I read it knowing that this was not some abstract story, but something that had happened to my friend Albert’s father too.
Eddie Willner died this week (see the link above to his obituary). I had not seen him since 1977 when I graduated from high school, but I’ve told his story many times to students of mine. I teach the Holocaust every semester in one course or another and my own frame of reference always begins with Mr. Willner and his patient kid-friendly explanation of what happened. For that, I’ll always remember him as a great man.