In Museums About Horrors, Children Learn of the Heroes
For two years, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan presented a harrowing exhibition on the horrors of Auschwitz.
Visitors could see the kind of boxcar that transported Jewish families to the complex of camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, the battered suitcases that were confiscated upon arrival, the poisonous Zyklon B canisters used in bogus shower rooms, the unbearable photographs of skeletal survivors and piles of corpses.
But museum officials understood that such a compelling exhibition could be too unsettling for young children, a concern shared by museums dedicated to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing. Educators have long grappled with the question of how to present traumatic historical events to children without inducing the kind of fear that suggests the world is an unsafe place full of cataclysms.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage, feeling that an introduction to the Holocaust is important at a time of rising antisemitism, is addressing that challenge by designing an exhibition specifically for 9- to 12-year-olds about a little known but uplifting story of the Holocaust. The exhibition, “Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark,” will explore how ordinary Danes saved 7,200 Jews — 95 percent of the country’s Jewish population — by smuggling them into neutral Sweden by boat before the Nazis could deport them to camps like Auschwitz.
“It’s a wonderful story for children to see that moral choices can be made in challenging situations,” said Ellen Bari, director of content development for the exhibition, which will open in September. “There is another way to respond to prejudice. The Danish rescue was a grass-roots effort to stand up to what they saw as a wrong.”
Several museums have found ways to emphasize inspirational narratives, rather than risk leaving children in despair at the human capacity for cruelty and bigotry.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, which commemorates the 1995 truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people, discourages parents and teachers from taking younger children into a darkened hall where they can be startled by the recorded sound of the actual explosion and lights eerily going on and off.
Instead the museum steers them to a program that introduces children as young as fourth graders to some of the forensic techniques that enabled law enforcement officials to track down the two principal perpetrators and successfully convict them.
Middle school and high school students get a more sophisticated version, picking up science and technology skills while manipulating images on touch-screen tables. “It’s just like watching ‘CSI’ but you’re the people in the CSI,” one student says in a museum video.
Students may also dabble in architecture and engineering, learning basic principles about how to construct buildings to withstand explosive blasts and hurricanes. At an outdoor memorial, they can discover “how memorials and nature play an important role in healing,” the museum’s website explains.
Even when the children tour the main galleries, the museum emphasizes positive outcomes, an approach its chief executive, Kari Watkins, summarizes this way: “There are bad people in the world and they do bad things. A man was mad at the government, but the good guys won and we came out stronger.”
Dr. Robin H. Gurwitch, a clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center who specializes in the effect of calamitous events on children and was a consultant in the design of the Oklahoma City museum, said that looking too explicitly at tragic episodes in history “can be overwhelming, confusing and disturbing for children,” leading to emotional and physiological distress, like troubled sleep.
But focusing on heartening aspects of an event, like the risks taken by emergency workers or the kindness of neighbors and strangers, can leave children with a sense of hope. “Even when the rest of the world was turning its back, the Danish people made a difference,” she said. Such stories can turn a visit into “an incredibly rich experience.”
The heart-rending indoor collection of 70,000 artifacts at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan — a crushed fire truck, fragments of steel beams, and rings and wallets that belonged to the victims — is somewhat tempered by stepping outside, Dr. Gurwitch said. Reflecting pools and waterfalls in the footprint of the two destroyed buildings are surrounded by hundreds of swamp white oak trees and walls bearing the names of the 2,977 victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
“It gives a sense of peace, that these people will be remembered and that there were people who cared about them,” Dr. Gurwitch said.
Sharing accounts of the Holocaust can be particularly difficult. At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the most gruesome scenes — what Dr. Gurwitch called “crescendos of horror” — are notably absent in a discrete suite of rooms aimed at children.
In an exhibit known as “Daniel’s Story,” a fictional narrative enhanced by vivid dioramas and period photographs unspools landmark moments of the Holocaust through the chilling experiences of a German Jewish boy. He tells of a pleasant childhood that is upended by the rise of the Nazis, the destruction of stores and synagogues overnight on Kristallnacht, the bans against Jews attending public schools, the forced wearing of Stars of David, and finally the confinement in ghettos and concentration camps.
“We don’t want students to feel they themselves are in danger,” said Gretchen Skidmore, the museum’s director of education initiatives. “That would be counterproductive.”
By contrast, the real story of the Jews in Denmark is an inspiring one. After the Germans invaded, they largely allowed the Danes to continue governing and did not impose the harsh restrictions on Jews that they had inflicted in other conquered territories. (In Hitler’s twisted anthropology, blondish, blue-eyed Danes were Aryan and merited better treatment.) Denmark also prided itself on a long history of tolerance, said Bari of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, treating its citizens equally regardless of their religion.
By October 1943, when it became evident that the German occupiers were going to deport the country’s entire Jewish population, the Danish underground mobilized a Dunkirk-like rescue effort. They patched together a flotilla of 300 boats, including large fishing vessels, rowboats and kayaks, and began furtively ferrying Jews on a voyage to Sweden that could last three hours.
Before the month was over, 7,200 Jews were safely ensconced in Sweden. Although the Nazis did capture about 470 Jews in Denmark and sent them to the ghetto and labor camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, only 53 perished. By comparison, 90 percent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews and 75 percent of the 160,000 Jews in the Netherlands were murdered.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s exhibition will include holograms of three figures based on actual people that tell the rescue story, as well as a scale model of a Danish fishing vessel that was used in the rescue, the Gerda III, which the museum owns and docks in Mystic, Conn.
Liz Edelstein, the museum’s vice president for education, said that despite their limited knowledge of history, younger children could grasp whether actions were fair or unfair.
The upcoming exhibition, she said, would hopefully help them understand the “risks the Danes took and see how complicated their dilemmas were” while making clear that “dehumanizing people through racial prejudice can lead to mass murder.”
“To the extent anyone was successful, Denmark was successful,” she said, “and these children wouldn’t have found that out in an exhibit like ‘Auschwitz.’”