December 18, 2018

Resistance and rescuers: Holocaust books for kids

When children approach their parents with inevitable questions about death, divorce, homosexuality or how babies are made, adults often turn to books to find the right words to start the discussion. The same is true of another sensitive subject that defies simple explanation: the Holocaust. There are a few thousand memoirs, biographies and novels for young people on the Holocaust published around the world, and surprisingly, more than 100 picture books, too. It is clearly a popular subject.

The first foray into the delicate topic in picture-book format was successfully attempted by the distinguished children’s author Eve Bunting with her 1980 title, “Terrible Things.” Although the author states it is about the Holocaust, she presents an allegory depicting forest animals that are carried away, one species after another, by an unseen evil force. She quotes Pastor Martin Niemoeller, who long ago noted, “[T]hen they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” Librarians and teachers complained loudly when this book went out of print, and since the 1989 reissue, it is often used as a jumping-off point to discuss any 20th century genocide. 

The second oft-used picture book was published the following year by noted author and survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein and titled “Promise of a New Spring: The Holocaust and Renewal.” (The title is now out of print.) It is also allegorical, this time using images of nature and nature’s renewal after a forest fire. But this slim book was the first to contain a few stark black-and-white photos and other images of the Nazi era. It took a few more years, but in 1987, David Adler, another popular children’s author, who has since written many more books dealing with the Holocaust, published “The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm,” which is still in print today and serves as the single easiest access introductory book for children under 10 years old. This moving, photo-illustrated 28-page story tells of a young girl who notices a tattooed number on her beloved Grandpa’s arm that he has been attempting to keep hidden from her. She simply asks, “What’s that?” The girl is 7 years old, and her grandfather imparts just enough information to answer the question properly, but not enough to frighten her. The book ends on the comforting photo of the relieved grandfather finally allowing the number on his arm to be in full view as he does dishes in the kitchen.

So how does one access information about horrific events if one is a child? The 100-plus picture books are simply a beginning. (About 80 have been published in North America.) Some of them are in no way appropriate for grade-school children and are considered to belong to the genre librarians call “Illustrated Books for Older Readers.” They are useful when read aloud to middle and high school students as introductions to Holocaust studies and for discussion starters. These many titles can be separated into a variety of different categories, such as allegories, biographies or historical fiction, but by far the most populous category is the one extolling the virtues of rescuers or resistance fighters. This subset of the literature is full of heroes and heroines, Jewish and non-Jewish, who defy the evil in their midst and leave readers feeling hopeful after their first confrontations with the reality of genocide.

In fact, titles from dozens of children’s book publishers include books about various non-Jews harboring secret Jews in basements, French resistance fighters celebrating a Passover seder, nuns rescuing Jews, Muslims rescuing Jews, Danes rescuing Jews and even Jews rescuing other Jews in astonishing and historically accurate ways. “Rose Blanche,” by Italian artist Roberto Innocenti is the most widely known book dealing with the subject of Righteous Gentiles, and it has been translated into many languages, including Chinese. This is due to the depth and detail of Innocenti’s remarkable paintings that follow an innocent young German girl who stumbles upon a concentration camp near her village. In the book leaf to the 1991 American edition of Rose Blanche,” Innocenti wrote, “I wanted to illustrate how a child experiences war without really understanding it. After drawing the first page I chose Rose Blanche’ as its title because of the significance of the name. Rose Blanche was a group of young German citizens protesting the war. They had understood what others wanted to ignore. They were all killed. In this book fascism is a day-to-day reality. Only the victims and the little girl have known its real face.”

Coincidentally, the year 2011 saw the publication of two illustrated books for older readers about the Polish Catholic social worker Irena Sendler, a woman who smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, gave them false identity papers and placed their true names in jars under an apple tree in a neighbor’s backyard. In 1943, she was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, but she refused to betray either the children or any associates who had helped her. She died in 2008 at the age of 98, after receiving numerous honors. The books, “Irena’s Jars of Secrets,” by Marcia Vaughan, and “Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto,” by Los Angeles author Susan Goldman Rubin, are both 40-page biographies of this courageous woman, richly illustrated with dark oil paintings. Both authors are to be commended for including extensive author’s source notes and resources for further reading, including Web sites and other media. Vaughan’s book contains less text and simpler vocabulary than Rubin’s, and would therefore be suitable for a younger audience. She also includes a useful glossary and pronunciation guide. Both books would serve as an admirable entry into the difficult subject of the Holocaust for any child in fifth grade and up.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award for the best book for Jewish Children is announced each January by the Association of Jewish Libraries. This year, two excellent nonfiction Holocaust books for older readers have been awarded prizes: “Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust” and “His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg: Courage, Rescue, and Mystery During World War II,” by Louise Borden. Both books prove that more can be said about this subject in new ways. These are not picture books. Each one is meticulously designed and researched, showing that nonfiction can be compelling and readable. Borden chooses an unusual prose format that may be off-putting to some but quite appealing to others. She presents Wallenberg’s biographical story through numerous historical photos, limited text and much white space. The text reads more like the lyrical styling of poetry rather than straight-out narration. It is divided into 15 chapters that highlight the Swedish diplomat’s commitment to rescuing Jewish people in Budapest during the war. Sydney Taylor Book Award committee chair Aimee Lurie commented that “ ‘His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg’ shows how the courageous actions of one person, despite tremendous obstacles, can make a difference. Louise Borden’s well researched biography will, without a doubt, inspire children to perform acts of kindness and speak out against oppression.” (In 2006, Borden’s “The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margaret and H.A. Rey” also won a Sydney Taylor award.)

Teen readers can say goodbye to the suggestion that Jews went silently to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter. Doreen Rappaport’s 240-page book for young adults, “Beyond Courage,” honors the memories of Jewish victims through 18 separate absorbing accounts of Jewish resistance. Some names, like Abba Kovner, Mordechai Anielewicz or Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, may be familiar. Most are not, and some have never previously been written about for teens. The appealing design, placement of maps and photographs, deliberate organization and well-written text show the immense amount of research and skill Rappaport brings to this six-year-long project. Her introduction previews the types of stories she ably relates throughout the book: “Jews refused to renounce their religion and celebrated their holidays in secret, improvising essential ritual objects. They set up secret schools, giving their children hope for the future. They collected diaries, testimonies, art and photographs so the rest of the world would have a record of what had happened. They became expert forgers, providing other Jews with new identification and ration cards so they would not starve. They devised ingenious plans to smuggle children out of danger, to find hiding places for them and to take them across mountains and through barbed wire to safe countries.”  

This is not a book to read in one sitting. “Beyond Courage” has been highly praised throughout children’s literary circles from the moment of its publication. Receiving starred reviews in major publications (Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and more), it was often mentioned as a possible contender for the Newbery award, the highest children’s literature honor awarded by the American Library Association. (It did not win.) The value of all this publicity is that libraries and schools across the nation acquired this important title, and now Holocaust sections everywhere include these factual and significant stories of Jewish resistance under Nazi occupation. 

Another multiple award winner, “Hana’s Suitcase,” is one of the most celebrated Holocaust books for young readers and was recently reissued by Second Story Press.  In 2002, it won the Sydney Taylor Book Award and then went on to garner nine more literary honors, including the National Jewish Book Award and the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year. It tells the remarkable true story of a battered suitcase sent by curators from the museum at Auschwitz to a small Japanese Holocaust museum in Tokyo. The haunting presence of the suitcase (discovered to have belonged to Hana Brady, a young Czech girl murdered by the Nazis), brings together a group of present-day Japanese children, a heroic Japanese educator and a Holocaust survivor in Toronto, who turns out to be Hana’s brother.  It is suitable for ages 10 and up. 

This book has been published in 45 countries, produced as a play and made into three different documentaries. Its author, Karen Levine, along with Holocaust survivor George Brady and Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center director Fumiko Ishioka, have traveled to many of those 45 countries in the past 10 years, comprising what Levine calls “a remarkable decade.” They retell the life story of young Hana Brady, the suitcase from Auschwitz with her name on it and a young Japanese woman’s relentless search for answers. The new 2012 edition, titled “Hana’s Suitcase Anniversary Album,” serves as a compelling addition to the original text. The first part reprints the original book, and the additional album material contains more than 60 new pages of pictures and stories of what happened after the initial publication. There is also a section called “Things You Can Do” and a chapter simply named “Reflections,” consisting of songs, poems and pictures written by kids in response to their first hearing of the story. Tucked into the back of the book is a documentary CD produced by Levine for Canadian Broadcasting Radio One. This beloved true story, artfully assembled in this new album format, is again ready to impact a new generation of readers. 

The survivors are aging. Young people today may never have the opportunity to meet someone who lived through those horrifying years, so it is gratifying to know that excellent Holocaust books for youth with positive messages are still being published. Children will eventually learn more details of the atrocities if they so choose. But this type of Holocaust literature enables children to read compelling, heroic aspects of history, in addition to the stories of other courageous individuals who risked their own lives in the face of truly “terrible things.” 

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and the president of the Schools, Synagogues and Centers division of the Association of Jewish Libraries.