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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Teaching Young Children About the Holocaust: A Visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Our next major stop was going to be Krakow, but along the way we would passing right by Auschwitz in the town of Oswiecim, Poland. In all honesty, we were a little uncertain about whether Auschwitz was something that we should take the kids. There are the normal parental anxiety of whether the kids will act respectful enough; but then in addition, on the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum website it advises against bringing kids who are under 14 years old. On the other hand, this was such an important part of history that it would be a shame to just drive by such a meaningful site where over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives. After careful and thoughtful consideration, we decided that visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was something that would be beneficial to for us as a family to visit together.

Preparing for the Visit

Prior to arriving in Poland we hadn’t really discussed World War II or the Holocaust with our kids, who are 4 and 7 years old. But when we were in Warsaw we decided to visit the ‘Warsaw Uprising Museum’ so it sparked the conversation with the kids and we had read some information about the Holocaust to them prior to the visit. Through reading and the visit, they started to see how the Jews were oppressed and treated poorly within the ghetto.

We kept the messages short and succinct, mainly sharing that there was this evil leader Hitler and he thought Jewish people were bad and so he and his people started to try to rid the world of them. We talked about how they had to wear a star on their arm, that they didn’t get access to food and how they had to leave their homes to live in this certain part of the city (ghetto) where they didn’t get the conveniences of everyday life. We also shared that many of these Jews died or were killed. As we were talking about it, Clara asked if children also died, which we told her ‘yes, they did.’ However, we always ended our conversations with reminders that this isn’t happening anymore, as the other countries in the world fought back against the Nazis and won World War II. However, it is important to learn about these bad things in history so that it isn’t repeated.

The night before visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau we also read the book The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window by Jeff Gottesfeld, which is a picture book talking about the tree outside of Anne Frank’s window that observed her and her family during the Holocaust in Amsterdam. Even Connor seemed to grasp some parts saying, “Hitler was stupid.” This also helped give them a little base of knowledge prior to visiting.

Setting Expectations

Leading up to our visit, we added in gentle reminders that we needed to be respectful and calm while at the museum in respect for the people who were treated badly and died there. Right before entering we went over what it meant to be respectful again – no silliness, no fighting, no yelling and to remain calm.

Establishing these at the forefront helped, as when we were inside and they might have started to talk loudly we just had to give the gentle reminder, ‘Remember we need to be quiet and respectful.’

As an added incentive, we also promised some ice cream after the visit if they did good.

Deciding to Explore on Our Own & Timing

When you purchase the tickets there were timeslots every 15 minutes or so in a variety of languages, which includes a guide to take you around the site. However, we knew that a guided tour may not be the best for the kids in this particular situation, as if by chance something went awry, we didn’t want to be in a group situation. Plus, we wanted the flexibility to go at our own pace and speed. Therefore, we opted to enter the museum on one of the self-guided ticket options, which there is no fee. However, these self-guided tickets tended to be in the later part of the day – starting around 4-5 p.m. In the end though, coming in the later part of the day worked to our advantage as there was less people at the site overall.

Visiting the Grounds

We started our tour at the original/main Auschwitz site. This was the initial army barracks that the German Special Services converted into the initial concentration camp. They added barracks over time to house more prisoners. Inside several of the barracks were mini museums dedicated to various aspects of the Holocaust and World War II. As many people know, some of the videos and photos can be quite graphic, so Alex and I did a staggered approach to visiting the barracks. He would go into certain barracks to check them out and then come out and say whether it was something the kids and I could go see. While we didn’t get to read all the displays, I still felt like I got something from the visit. If there were ones that the weren’t appropriate for the kids, Alex would wait outside with them while I went inside. I would say by the end, the kids and I were able to go in about half of them.

We ended up being a bit tight on time, so we didn’t have time to visit about 4 of the barracks that were specifically dedicated to the Holocaust in specific countries within Europe. The exhibits were all really well done and there wasn’t much that was ‘too gruesome’ for children; although it was still very sobering. We also ran into several other families visiting the site, although I would say that our 4-year-old was probably the youngest of them.

The one that was the most sobering for me was the barracks that showed rooms full of suitcases, shoes, glasses, and clothes all piled up which were taken away from the Jews after they arrived at the camps. This is one of barracks that we did take the kids in as well, because it was visually informing but not graphic. Every parent has different levels of comfort of what they want their kids to learn at certain ages, so that’s why I would recommend the staggered approach of having one parent do a preview.

At the end of the visit, we visited the gas chamber and crematorium on site. This was something we didn’t really go into depth with Connor (4 years old) and he didn’t really ask about it. However, Alex took in Clara on her own and explained a bit about it was used for, which she did understand.

Our total visit time at the initial Auschwitz site was about 1 hr. 45 mins. However, we did miss out on some things like mentioned above.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau Site

Only about a 7-minute drive away is the second camp of Birkenau that was built during the war by the SS because they needed more room. This was also the site where they built the specialized gas chambers to handle larger groups. While the original site was good sized, driving by and walking through this site really put into visual effect the massive amount of space that this concentration camp took up. In all, there were actually 3 different sites that made up the Auschwitz camps: Auschwitz I was the main camp, Auschwitz II- Birkenau was the concentration and extermination camp with gas chambers; and Auschwitz III-Monowitz was a labor camp.

This site was open until 8:30 p.m. so we only had about 20 minutes to look around by the time we arrived. However, we were able to look in one of the barracks where the prisoners would have been housed and walked along the railway tracks that brought these hundred of thousands of Jews in on trains to be slaves to labour or taken to gas chambers. As the Germans started to recognize that they were losing the war they started to burn buildings, gas chambers and more to try to get rid of the evidence. However, the base structures of these barracks are still visible. It was incredibly sad to see the amount of space and think about the loss of life and poor living conditions that these people had to endure. While it worked well to go to Auschwitz I later in the day, we really wished that we had more time to look around the Auschwitz II-Birkenau site.

Closing Thoughts

We realize that every parent has a different level of comfort and idea of when their young children should learn about the atrocities of the world. (As well as different children has different levels of understanding and behavior at certain ages; so this may not be the place for every child to visit.) However, I once heard that if these horrible events happened to young people these ages, then young children can learn about them. The world can be a horrible place, but if we can learn from the mistakes of history hopefully our children will never have to deal with such evil in their lifetimes.


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