Starting Wednesday night at sunset, Israel marked Holocaust Remembrance Day. Commemorations continued in schools around the country Thursday, including in kindergarten classes.
This year, Israel is fully implementing a Holocaust curriculum for kindergartners.
"We need to teach the kindergarten teachers what to do on Yom Hashoah, because they have to make sense of the day," says Yael Richler-Friedman, using the Hebrew name for the remembrance day.
She is a teacher trainer at Yad Vashem, Israel's World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and she helped write the kindergarten materials. They are part of a new comprehensive Holocaust studies program for Israeli students of all ages that was unveiled two years ago.
The program took time to take root, Richler-Friedman says, in part because of bureaucracy, but also because of the difficult subject.
"A lot of times, I see teachers and they say, 'Don't speak with me about it,' " she says. The teachers tell her, "It will take me to dark places. I don't want it."
But they can't avoid it in Israel. Even in kindergarten.
Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, an air raid siren wails for two full minutes. Around the country, people stop whatever they're doing — driving, working, talking — to stand still and remember. Even on highways, cars come to a halt.
The evening before, regular TV shows are canceled and special Holocaust-themed programming airs. Shops close early.
Nava Ron, a veteran kindergarten teacher, says 4- and 5-year-olds know this day is different.
"You can't ignore it. It exists. There's the siren," she said, sitting in a low blue plastic chair in Jerusalem's "Rainbow" kindergarten. "Our job is to keep them calm and not give them too much information."
This morning, she brought together her six oldest kindergarten students for a special conversation.
"Good morning, children," she said.
"Good morning," they chorused.
Then she began: "This is a very special day."
In 10 minutes, Ron touched on all the main points that Israel's education ministry wants communicated to kindergartners. First, she tells them the Holocaust is something that happened a long time ago, in a country far away from here.
Then she asks the children what they know about it. One child says Israeli soldiers protect them now. Another pipes up and says at that time, the whole world was at war.
Ron agrees. She directs the conversation toward democracy, tolerance and other ways to solve conflicts.
Richler-Friedman, the Holocaust educator, says Israel standardized the kindergarten material, in part, because some teachers were saying too much. "Telling them about the gas chambers. The horrible person who wanted to kill all Jews and if he would live today, also he would want to kill all the Jews. Something that is very frightening. Even sometimes using pictures. Horrible pictures," Richler-Friedman says.
Last year, some Israeli parents were outraged when their children came home on Holocaust Remembrance Day wearing yellow stars, the symbol Nazis forced Jews to wear to label and discriminate against them.
Another problem Richler-Friedman regularly sees is kindergarten teachers who simply avoid discussing the Holocaust, despite all the references children are regularly exposed to in Israel. Some, she says, pretend the siren is an emergency drill or an ambulance.
"Saying the siren is an ambulance or something like that — it's not an educational act," Richler-Friedman said. "It's lying."
But she is sympathetic, saying kindergarten teachers face the same struggle many people do when they really consider the Holocaust.
It can't be forgotten. But it contradicts the humanity people want to pass on to their children.
Don Futterman, director of the Israel Center for Educational Innovation, still remembers terrible Holocaust photos he says he saw when he was way too young. When the siren began Thursday, he stopped his car, got out and saw other things.
"I could see a building-sized billboard advertising new hoodie sweatshirts," he says. "I could see the Israeli flag in my car. I could see all these other things of life that [are] going on since then. And I thought, that also makes sense. That was right. Because life does continue."
Back in Jerusalem's "Rainbow" kindergarten, Nava Ron gathered all the children just before the siren started Thursday, and invited them to make the siren sound. They all knew how. When the real one began, some of them came to her for a hug.
When the wail faded away, "OK," she said. "Now back to our routine."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, the county's has a nationwide curriculum for discussing the Holocaust in schools. But this year, it was expanded to kindergartners as they try to understand the events around them. NPR's Emily Harris reports.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: One big reason Israel wrote an official Holocaust curriculum for kindergarten is this.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)
HARRIS: Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, an air raid siren wails for two full minutes.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)
HARRIS: When that happened today, people stopped driving, as they do every year. They stopped working. They stood still and remembered. Last night, TV shows were canceled and shops closed up early. Kindergarten teacher Nava Ron says 4 and 5-year-olds know something is up.
NAVA RON: (Through interpreter) You can't ignore it. It exists. There's the siren. But our job is to keep them calm and not give them too much information. They'll have enough years to learn the real history of the Jewish people.
HARRIS: This morning, Ron held a special conversation with just a few of her older kindergartners.
RON: (Speaking Hebrew).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Speaking Hebrew).
HARRIS: She told them Holocaust Memorial Day relates to a war that happened long before they were born and far away. One child says Israeli soldiers protect them now. Another piped up and said then, the whole world was at war. That's right, Ron said, and talked about other ways to solve conflicts. Then all the children gathered. Before the real siren started, teacher Ron invited them to make the siren sound.
RON: (Speaking Hebrew).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Imitating siren).
HARRIS: They all knew how. During the real one, some children came to her for a hug. Then when it finished, she said, OK, now back to our routine. This is exactly the type of Holocaust lesson Israel wants in kindergarten. Educators standardized the kindergarten material in part because some teachers were saying too much.
YAEL RICHLER-FRIEDMAN: One of the mistakes is telling them everything.
HARRIS: Yael Richler-Friedman helped write the kindergarten curriculum.
RICHLER-FRIEDMAN: Telling them about the gas chambers, telling them about the horrible person who wanted to kill all the Jews. And if he would live today, also he would want to kill all the Jews, and some think that that is very, very frightening - and even sometimes using pictures, horrible pictures.
HARRIS: Another problem she regularly sees, she's an educator at Israel's Holocaust center, Yad Vashem, is kindergarten teacher avoiding the subject entirely.
RICHLER-FRIEDMAN: Saying that the siren is an ambulance or something like that, it's not an educational act. It's lying.
HARRIS: She believes the struggle kindergarten teachers face is the same one many people do. How do you explain the Holocaust, not just to little kids but at all? Emily Harris, NPR News Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.