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Fear Factor

Holocaust books for children can be terrifying—for adults. How do we teach our kids about history without scarring them for life?

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Recently I worked at my synagogue’s book fair. Sitting at the cash box, I watched countless panic-stricken Jewish mothers yank their children away from the Maus display. (Two tween boys actually made it to the counter with the books before their moms caught up to them and assured them, “Oh, you don’t want to read that.”) Kids veered toward Anne Frank; moms herded them toward Mrs. Greenberg’s Messy Hanukkah. It was like performance art.

I get it, believe me. I’d steeled myself to introduce Josie to the notion of the Holocaust when she was in third grade, when I planned to give her Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. That book, a brilliant Newbery-medal-winning tale of a little girl in Denmark during World War II, introduces historical truths in a manageable way. It’s emotionally resonant, but not so horrifying that kids will wind up rocking, haunted, in a corner.

As I’ve written before, this brilliant plan failed miserably when Josie, in second grade, borrowed a book called The Night Crossing from the school library. It’s about a family fleeing Innsbruck in 1938. By the time I found it in her backpack, she’d already read it. (Baby’s first Holocaust book! And I wasn’t even there!) I asked Josie to tell me about the story. She explained that the Nazis were bad people who wanted to kill Clara and her family, and Clara’s family had to escape by sneaking over the mountains at night. They were worried that their Shabbat candlesticks would clank together and alert the Nazis, but Clara had the idea to hide them inside her dolls. And since the dolls had already made one night crossing, escaping from anti-Jewish violence in Russia years earlier with Clara’s grandmother when she was Clara’s age, the dolls wouldn’t be afraid.

I asked Josie whether she knew that the story was based on history. “I know that Clara isn’t real, but the Nazis were,” she said, pronouncing it “NaZEES.” She also thought Clara’s family was escaping from Australia. Still, she got the gist.

But that was no thanks to me, the mother who waited too long.

So, I ask you: How do we figure out what kids can understand and process, and when to let them try? How do we find the balance between letting them have a childhood and giving them history? How do we get out of our own way, putting aside our own defenses and anxiety to do what’s necessary to let our kids grow up? I’ve heard my friends say that kids should be innocent; they shouldn’t know about genocide at 8, 10, 12; they should be carefree and happy. Really? We are JEWS. Our history hasn’t exactly been all carefree and happy. Wishing it so, even for 12-year-olds, is willfully naïve. And frequently kids understand more than we give them credit for.

Of course kids vary; mileage varies. But if we try to protect them from everything, we turn them into cloistered idiots with messed-up worldviews. So, maybe you’re positive your 10-year-old isn’t ready for Maus. Fine. But if your kid is old enough to be interested, be wary of closing the door to awareness and leaning against it. Our decision to shield them is generally more about our needs than theirs. And as with sex ed, if you wait too long, you aren’t going to be the one doing the educating.

I was lucky that my daughter’s first Holocaust educator was Karen Ackerman. “An excellent fictional introduction to the Holocaust,” School Library Journal said of The Night Crossing. “Ackerman’s brief chapter book … gives younger kids a first look at the essentials of what it was like to be an ordinary child in danger at that terrible time,” wrote Hazel Rochman in Booklist.

But if your kid is interested, or older than 10, I’d encourage you to go for Maus. It’s a terrific book. As Ellen Handler Spitz, a professor of art at the University of Maryland who specializes in aesthetics and children’s literature, pointed out in the New Republic last year, most Holocaust books for kids and teens aren’t. “The Jewish protagonist may seem unrealistically virtuous, or merely a cipher; the plot overly predictable or trite; the tone heavy-handed or saccharine; the truth subtly distorted (as in Carmen Agra Deedy’s touching story, The Yellow Star, which alleges—despite a lack of historical corroboration—that King Christian X of Denmark wore a yellow star to show solidarity with the Jews of his country and asked his countrymen to do the same); or just an overload of data crammed between the covers of a book, so that readers feel bombarded and overwhelmed.”

As human beings we seek uplift. But Holocaust stories that try to be joyful generally ring false. Kids, like adults, deserve truth. Remember Angel Girl by Laurie Friedman, the memoir of Herman Rosenblat, who claimed to have fallen in love in the girl who tossed apples to him every day over the Buchenwald fence? It was a lie, and the book was withdrawn. As the publisher said, Holocaust books mustn’t “sacrifice veracity for emotional impact.”

But they also shouldn’t revel in unlimited brutality. Or, in my opinion, ungapatchka’d writing. (I realize I’m in the minority on this one, but The Book Thief? Hundreds and hundreds of pages of ungapatchka. “When Liesel left that day, she said something with great uneasiness. Two giant words were struggled with, carried on her shoulder, and dropped as a bungling pair at Ilsa Hermann’s feet. They fell off sideways as the girl veered with them and could no longer sustain their weight. Together, they sat on the floor, large and loud and clumsy.” Please. Less, Markus.)

There are books that I think are wonderful, but still wrong for most kids. I was in awe of Morris Gleitzman’s Once, which I put on my list of best Jewish children’s books of 2010, but it’s incredibly dark. The sequel, Then, is just as impressive from a literary standpoint, but it’s even bleaker, bloodier, and more harrowing. I didn’t include it on my 2011 list because I simply can’t imagine encouraging a child to read it. Similarly, Paul Janeczko’s young-adult poetry collection, Requiem: Poems of the Terezin Ghetto, is so grim I’m not sure it works for most teenagers as either an educational tool or a work of art. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a poem narrated by a Nazi officer.

We herded all the Jew swine
close to the gallows
where the old Jew stood on the wagon
I ordered my Jews closer.
Close enough to hear
the twig snap of his neck.
Close enough to smell
when he shit himself in death.
Close enough to see his face darken,
his tongue poke from his mouth.

The speaker then forces a different Jew to throw stones at a boy until the boy dies. In another poem, the manager of the camp’s crematorium describes, in graphic detail, what happens to a human body as it burns. These scenes have the ring of truth, and Janeczko, a much-praised poet for young people, clearly did a great deal of research. It’s utterly respectful—but there are very few readers I’d recommend it to.

You’ve probably already gleaned what I’m getting at: Read children’s Holocaust books before you give them to your kid. And yes, you have to. Start thinking about it before you think your kid is ready. (And in our media-saturated world, if your kid is 8, she’s ready.) The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., offers some useful advice: Elementary school can be a good time to begin talking about diversity, bias, and prejudice. Strive for precision of language; steer clear of generalizations and stereotypes (such as “all Germans were evil”). Avoid comparisons of pain (this is not a “who is most oppressed” competition). Don’t romanticize history by overemphasizing heroic tales or the worst aspects of human nature, but don’t make it sound like there were as many heroic gentile rescuers as there were villains, either. Contextualize history, and make responsible methodological choices. (“Graphic material should be used judiciously—Try to select images and texts that do not exploit the students’ emotional vulnerability.”)

The museum offers a (somewhat dry and outdated) reading list; I prefer the one compiled by a former school librarian, Carol Hurst. She died in 2007, but her daughter has maintained the site, and Hurst’s list is both more current and more fiction-heavy than the museum’s. And among recently published books, I recommend the picture book I Will Come Back for You: A Family in Hiding During World War II, by Marisabina Russo (age 6 and up); The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak by Tomek Bogacki (age 8 and up); and Terezin: Voices From the Holocaust by Ruth Thomson (age 9 and up).

And Maus? For for graphic-novel-loving tweens, you could do a lot worse.

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Naomi Graetz says:

I agree totally with Marjorie Ingall. When I was a culture counselor in Cejwin Camps in 1965 or 1966, we showed the campers one of the first movies about the holocaust (made by Xerox) that showed victims of the concentration camp coming down a shute. I was shocked that the campers were so hysterical when they saw this, since they had never been exposed to the holocaust before this. On the one hand, I may have been insensitive to their shock, but in recent years I have come to realize that they were cossetted in their middle class families, who protected them from the dangers that can befall Jews. Unfortunately, since my mother had lost half her family in Europe and I attended a Jewish day school, I was fully aware of what the holocaust was and had read books (mostly fiction) about that time period. The lesson stayed with me for many years when I raised my 3 children and more recently with conversations with my grandchildren. Expose kids to the holocaust, just as we expose kids to natural deaths, evil etc. It cannot be hidden.

Jamie Wright says:

The Holocaust SHOULD be scary. Antisemitism keeps creeping back into culture, whether it is the defilement of Jewish graves in France, the snarky comments made about Jews in relation to the recent bank failures and housing crisis, or the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is framed by those who are neutral to Israel or actively pro-Palestinian. The Holocaust was the culmination of a 1500 year campaign against the Jewish people — a campaign filled with pogroms, Inquisitions, exclusions from Guilds, and rampantly casual discrimination. A clear understanding of the Holocaust will keep young people vigilant and willing to meet Antisemitism head on, not matter how veiled it may be.

Naomi Sandweiss says:

Dear Marjorie,

Thanks for this important article. I remember buying a copy of Anne Frank’s Diary for myself at a garage sale, unbeknownst to my parents.

As a parent and former docent at a Holocaust Museum, a few books that I would recommend for introducing the topic of the Holocaust include:

One Candle and Terrible Things by Eve Bunting. Both picture books, Terrible Things is an allegory of the Holocaust. Very sad, but relays the concepts through forest animals. One Candle is a Hanukah story that gently introduces the Holocaust through the eyes of survivors. For older children, Six Million Paperclips introduces the topic. My daughter read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry in third or fourth grade; it was age-appropriate and resonated with her.

This is an excellent piece, kudos. When my kids were younger, I appreciated the approach that I found in the book The Tatooed Torah (link below.)

By using an object as the “site” of persecution, the story is able to speak in general terms about what happened during the Shoah without invoking an irrational panic that it is all going to happen again any moment.

These are good suggestions, but what about Let the Celebrations Begin! I haven’t read this book in ages, so I can’t be sure how it stands to the test of time, but certainly on first read I was very impressed at how it introduced the concept of the Holocaust to children in a way that wasn’t bone-chillingly terrifying.

To assure balanced, ethical, empathetic and reasoning children, teach them that in human history, Jews are not unique in having been victims of mass killings.

Davida says:

Thank you for this article. My children are grown now, but The Holocaust was something we spoke about even when they were young, since many of my father’s family were murdered in Auschwitz. However, my sister is more concerned about how to introduce the subject to her children (9 and 11) and I have been trying to help her find age appropriate books about The Holocaust. I will send her this article!

    Teacher62012 says:

     My students just read the book The Girl Who Survived.  It gives the account from one survivors story of Auschwitz.  My students were moved by the story and it was very good at giving age appropriate details.

In the early 70s when I was around 10, I read “The Silver Sword” and “I am David”. I have no idea now if they were great literature – but they made an impact that I still recall.

Mark Edwards says:

Good grief what fiction.
Poems with Germans acting ungermanically…
Give it a rest, wait for Purim.

Bill Pearlman says:

Ed, and when it comes to industrial killing for the sake of extermination. Yes, Jews are unique.

Is the intention to preserve and promote a dynamic tension– deeply imprinted as an engram in the children’s psyches?

Referring to the non-Jewish genocides as ‘bullshit’ occurs as a willful disconnect from reality to support a limited narrative that raises another generation of young Jews to live their lives as “Jews against the world”.

The lesson of holocausting another group seems to be lost on present-day leaders of Israel–as Jules’ link to Haartez article illustrates so clearly.

Bill Pearlman says:

Sure Ed. If Israel is exterminating the palestinians they really suck at it.

Thank for for this post – it could not be more timely for me. For years I’ve been dreading the day that I need to shatter my daughters innocence and tell her of the Shoah. She is almost 9 now, and it is probably time. She is SO sensitive, I don’t know how she will be able to handle it. I would really prefer to wait longer but I don’t want to “wait too long” and have her learn elsewhere, as happened to the author, Marjorie. Girls (non-jews) in her class are already reading about Anne Frank.

Michelle says:

I read The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, Number the Stars, and the Diary of Anne Frank when I was in elementary school. Those books helped me get the basic historical idea of the Holocaust but weren’t brutal enough to give me nightmares. The Yolen book actually takes you in to the death camps, but I didn’t grasp the full horror until reading Night in late middle school. I never talked about it with my parents–my dad was surprised I was interested in the history.

Yes antisemitism is back and best way to protect our children is to tell them the truth.

You can do so with sensitivity making sure that they start reading and seeing age appropriate material.

I grew up with many children of Holocaust survivors and I learned about it from them.

Most of these children have had successful careers raised families and were not damaged for life.

It’s a tough subject but the world is not now and never was an easy place. Not6 talking about antisemitism and its consequences is more damaging in the long run.

Rachel says:

Read the first chapter, “Nazis in the Walls,” in HAVE YOU NO SHAME? AND OTHER REGRETTABLE STORIES by Rachel Shukert. I think she provides a very valid (even though sometimes irreverent) perspective on the affects of Holocaust literature on her generation.

When I was a child the only book available for kids was the Diary of Anne Frank. I hardly call it a children’s book now. So, I read all the adult books I could get my hands on, unsupervised, in the library of the JCC in Detroit, Michigan. Not the greatest idea. Where were my parents? I only wish I had the options of the Holocaust books available to today’s Jewish children.

I see no need to soft pedal what happened. I read “The Painted Bird” by Jerzy Kosinski when I was twelve years old. I experienced the horror and cruelty of the Holocaust through the eyes of another child. I have never forgotten that book. When my daughter was twelve, I bought it for her.

Arnie B. says:

Another good book for young adults: IS IT NIGHT OR IS IT DAY? by Fern Schumer. Her mom was one of the “Thousand Children” who were sent out of Germany to the US and this is a fictionalized version of the story. Excellent read for many age levels.

I’m glad to see you approach this important subject, Marjorie.

I wrote Jacob’s Rescue: A Holocaust Novel, so that Jewish children would know of those who risked their lives to save Jews and to let all children know about the glory of the human spirit. The story of rescue, I believe, is a good beginning to an unbearable history.

If you’d like a copy, please let me know:


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Fear Factor

Holocaust books for children can be terrifying—for adults. How do we teach our kids about history without scarring them for life?

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