Those who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s heard little about the Holocaust. Considered a subject too frightening for children, it was seldom discussed or taught. Even now, with almost a glut of literature, films, exhibits and college courses on the subject, it is still a difficult topic for parents and teachers to broach with kids. That is why a traveling exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened last week at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, may prove so valuable. “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story” chronicles the life and times of one child and his family in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. The tale is told through the eyes of Daniel, a fictional 9-year-old boy, who keeps a diary of his experiences as he moves from a “normal” pre-World War II childhood in an unnamed southern German town to the Lodz Ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Although Daniel isn’t a real person, the photos used to illustrate his story and those of his parents and sister, Erika, are actual historic pictures, and the diary entries, although written in English, are based on actual children’s diaries. The exhibit, which is designed for children 8 and older, contains none of the gruesome pictures of skeletonized camp survivors or bodies in mass graves that we often associate with the Holocaust. Instead, the school groups and families that visit this exhibit walk through a 5,000-square-foot representation of Daniel’s world. They can touch, look, listen and learn about Daniel, whose life at first may not see much different than their own. He plays soccer, is on the swim team, paints, argues with his sister, has a model train and celebrates Shabbat on Friday nights. He wants to be a painter or a famous soccer player when he grows up. But then things change, as visitors will see as they move from Daniel’s bright, cheery house to a darkened hallway and read in his diary: “The Nazis are taking over more and more. Many people are following their ways. Now some of my friends won’t play with me because I’m Jewish. I feel awful.” Windows slide up and show pictures of the family store before and after a rock shattered the window, the swimming pool where Daniel is no longer welcome and a sign that says in German: “No Jews allowed.” A radio blares Nazi news and propaganda, and a photograph and a diary entry record the night of horror in November 1938 that became known as “Kristallnacht,” when Daniel’s synagogue was burned to the ground.
Anti-Semitic graffiti on storefronts, newspaper headlines announcing the invasion of Poland, orders for Jews to wear yellow stars and the deportation to the ghetto all illustrate Daniel’s journey. In the ghetto, the family lives in one room, eats soup made from turnips and work as slave laborers. Then they are shipped to the concentration camp, which, a film informs us, Daniel and his father survive, while his mother and sister are killed. Daniel, who keeps his diary in his head, tells us that “over 1 1/2 million kids died [in the camps]. That’s like a whole school disappearing every day for eight years.”