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First Steps To Understanding the European Theater of World War II

The four major American wars that plagued the 20th century have been at the forefront of our history lessons for years now. World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War all took a huge toll on our societies and the generations that came just after these tragedies watched adults regroup, rebuild, make mistakes and learn lessons. With first hand accounts from family members who were there to the ever present media and our textbooks, we adults know the story pretty well. However, this isn’t the reality for today’s kids. They don’t have the same connections to this recent history like we did.

Forgotten

More and more, today’s school children have been given a sped-up version of the events. They have little chance to connect to the tragedies that befell our globe. Moreover, we are far more sensitive about what kids should and should not be exposed to. We feel the need to monitor all of the information that our kids take in. We morally want to ensure that they are ready for each stage of information that those young minds receive. The war was a big deal. It had a lot of horrible moments. It also had its share of brave and patriotic moments too. What age is appropriate to start relating the stories of the war? Where does one even begin?

We all know the very basics and that must be laid out- the wheres and the whens, but, what can we say about the far bigger issues of wartime death? And blind ambitions of a megalomaniac? The pacific aggression for oil domination? And probably most seriously, the holocaust. When is a child ready for such information? Perhaps, there is a way to be clear and truthful with kids while taking baby steps to introduce what the world was like during arguably the most analyzed war in history.

The Homefront

Perhaps the first stop to make in this story is the home front. Finding moments that connect young kids with stories of other kids is an amazing first step. One such story is the sacrifice that families made to help the “boys overseas” by planting Victory Gardens. These gardens allowed the national food supply to direct trendy, new-fangled canned food toward the fighting forces. As families back on the home front planted small backyard and windowsill gardens to keep healthy. Victory Gardens became so important that the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C. was converted into a Victory Garden until 1945. There are a couple of amazing Victory Gardens that you can visit today. They include The National Victory Garden at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. As well as the Victory Garden at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

One great resource for connecting kids to the sacrifices of the homefront is the wonderful literature that has been provided by outstanding children’s authors. A great example of this is “Meet Molly” by Valerie Tripp. This American Girl series brings the reader back to 1944. It narrates topics like Victory gardens, the British children’s evacuation (named Operation Pied Piper).It also explains how day to day life was different during wartime. Note that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!

The NAS Pensacola Aviation Museum is another great homefront resource. It has a small but mighty exhibit devoted to the homefront effort. Many other military museums do not push the homefront movement to the side as it was key in helping us gain the upper hand and eventual victory.

The Treasure Hunt

As kids gain maturity and start to understand the realities of what World War II meant to everyone, another story from these dark days surfaces. Hitler, the megalomaniac, was after accumulating all of the “good stuff” for himself. This included the artistic treasures all over Europe. He felt entitled to take whatever he wanted and many were worried about these priceless works of art. The concern grew so much that toward the end of the war, the Allies created a group of experts. The soldiers were sent to track down missing works and repatriate these masterpieces back to their rightful owners. This band of brothers were called The Monuments Men. Check out their story in this great play by play book “The Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert Ehler.

If your teens and tweens are interested, go a step further and check out the amazing movie “Monuments Men” that is based on this heroic true story. Then check out some of these amazing artworks in person. The Bruges Madonna, The Ghent Alterpiece, The Last Supper, and Lady with Ermine are all must see moments.

Anne’s Story

Probably the most famous path to understanding World War II is Anne Frank’s story. Uplifting, hopeful, devastating and sorrowful all at once, 14 year old Anne takes us through those last days of the war from her point of view. Her words are an important first step to understanding the horrors that sent 11 million people to their untimely death. Anne’s father, Otto, thought his daughter’s words were so authentic that he granted permission for their publication as he was the only member of her family left after the war was over. Reading this with a young person with enough maturity is an activity worth undertaking. Anne’s hideaway behind the bookcase is one of the most visited sites in all of Europe as her story is an everlasting call for peace.

Anne Frank House

The Escape

For many European Jews, escaping seemed the only way to stay alive. This was true for some very famous authors. Margret and HA Rey of Curious George fame were literally able to make their escape from occupied France thanks to a little curious monkey. Author Louise Borden spent a few years tracking down this great escape and does a great job explaining how George came to be and how he assisted the Reys. A perfect read for the primary set.

Another very famous escape chronicled was that of the Von Trapp family. Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music may be a musical but looking just a bit deeper, there is so much more. The captain and his family had to deal with the Third Reich’s invasion of their hometown. Escape from this oppression was their only option. While the real Von Trapps did not climb every mountain with the aid of singing nuns, they did have a harrowing escape and make for a very good discussion about standing up for what is right.

For the Kids

One of the most important things we all need to get across during any conversation about war is the lengths adults will go to in order to protect young people. In fact one such event was “Operation Pied Piper”. This military evacuation of children from England had many kids fostered by families in both Canada and the United States. Little remains of the operation that removed thousands of kids from their homes. This happened in London and other dangerous locales like Guernsey. Check out the Imperial War Museum’s collection of interesting artifacts about this unprecedented action. Use it as a way to let your kids know how adults think about kids even when things get crazy.

Probably the most famous moment that came out of this was a very young Queen Elizabeth’s speech to the children of the Commonwealth. It was broadcast everywhere and her last words were “Come on Margaret” to her younger sister. This small line became a popular saying when things got extra tough. People would look at each other and say “c’mon Margaret”. They also said “keep calm, Margaret” and “carry on Margaret” when everyone needed a bit of extra encouragement. This eventually morphed into the famous “keep calm and carry on” slogan we are so used to!

The princesses motivate the country's children during WWII

Early Connections

While each and every child needs to find their way through the WWII story at their own pace, ensuring that these early connections are made is a great first step. These stories will not only lay the groundwork for deeper understanding of far more unsettling conversations to come. As a teacher, my general thoughts and this is in no way scientific or exact in nature, kids can start handling this kind of information starting as early as the first grade with Victory Gardens and the home front. Third graders can learn about Operation Pied Piper.

Count on most fifth graders to be ready for the Monuments Men story and perhaps more. Middle schoolers who are showing signs of maturity are ready for Anne Frank and a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. This museum is an excellent example of how history can be accurately told while keeping in mind its visitor’s age. The museum took great care to ensure that parents have a little control on what information their kids are exposed to as they keep concentration camp footage in viewing boxes that are just tall enough to keep the footage out of sight until each visitor is prepared to see it.

A Deeper Dig Into Non Fiction

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of learning about the war is the reality that there were a lot of people who followed a lot of bad guys. But, learning that a phenomena like this can happen may be one of the most important lessons young minds can take away from this time of history. One good resource for this is World War II for Kids by Richard Panchyk. The book has a complete overview of the war and 21 activities that expand any knowledge base.

First Hand Experience

Lastly, many families are interested in visiting the concentration camps (and other World War II sites) in Europe. Should kids go to see a place like Auschwitz? The answer is simple and complex at the same time. My first reaction is no way. Kids are not ready to understand that a set of old buildings are the site of such unimaginable horror. They will want to be a bit loud, run a bit, and ask where the bathroom is like kids do.

In short, it is the rare child that has a clear enough understanding that visiting a place like Dachau is a moment in time to be cherished. To this day, only one my adult children feel ready to visit and I respect that. But it is that rare child- that child who shows a deeper understanding of how important it is to visit sites like this. They know how important it is to always continue to tell this story. They know that history does the job it’s supposed to: allow us to learn from our past so we make better decisions about our future.

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