I am often asked to recommend a Holocaust memoir appropriate for pre-high school students and until recently was often at a loss of what to recommend beyond the Diary of Anne Frank.
But Scholastic Focus, the largest publisher of children’s books in the world, has now come up with a series of stories for middle grade readers grades 4-7 ages 9-12 written by Joshua M. Greene of girls and women who went through the Holocaust that is not only appropriate for these younger readers but compelling literature.
Scholastic describes the series as “written and carefully researched narrative nonfiction books that will change the way young readers see the world.” Greene feels the mandate of his series is to relate the experience of young women who survived the Holocaust, based on their own testimonies and carefully researched history, in order to bring young readers closer to the experience of those who were there.
Thus far, there are six books planned for the series, each can be read pm their own: Fanya Heller — Hidden; Ditta Lowy — The Dressmaker’s Daughter; Rena Finder — A Girl on Schindler’s List; Cela Kassow — The Girl on a Horse planned for April 2025.
This review will consider two of these works,
Signs of Survival: A Memoir of the Holocaust is written by Renee Hartman with Joshua Greene. Renee was the only hearing member of her family so from an early age she had the responsibility of translating the world of sound into sign language for her parents and younger sister. Imagine not hearing the boots of German troops running up the stairs or their knocks on the door. When her parents were deported from Slovakia early in the Holocaust, their two young daughters were left to fend for themselves, first in hiding and later in Bergen Belsen. In dialogue with her sister Herda, Renee recounts her experience as a young child who must grapple with being on her own, responsible not only for herself but for her younger hearing impaired sister and doing what she had always done, interpreting into sign language the world of horror that she was experiencing.
Uncannily, intuitively brilliant, Renee sought refuge with a family that she knew who were also hearing impaired and who took in the young children until it became too dangerous. Ultimately Renee and Herta were incarcerated in Bergen Belsen where they not only suffered the fate of their fellow prisoner but had to navigate the brutality of the concentration camp guards who took extra delight in torturing not only Jewish prisoners but those who were handicapped. Renee and Herta recount their stories taken from their testimonies. One must pay special attention to what Herta describes for those who cannot hear, often observe the world more intensely from what they see.
Both girls survived and both came to the United States, where Renee was instrumental with her husband Professor Geoffrey Hartman, the Sterling Professor of English Literature at Yale University, in founding what is now the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, the first such archive in the United States established 45 years ago in the now seemingly antiquated times when the technological battle for dominance was between VHS and Beta,
Joshua Greene, a filmmaker, and writer weaved this work from the testimonies of both women, commenting just enough about the history of the Holocaust and World War II to give context to the young girls’ stories. There is a heroic dimension to survival itself, and an even greater heroism when two sisters survive, one of whom is handicapped and the other is responsible for herself and her sister. Simply put, the story is inspirational especially for young readers blessed with hearing, blessed to live in freedom.
Just in time for the 81st anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Scholastic will publish yet another book for younger readers The Girl Who Fought Back: Vladka Meed and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Vladka, her nom de guerre, was born Feigele Peitel and joined the Warsaw Ghetto resistance months prior to the battle. She was given terribly dangerous assignments, not the least of which was to take out of the ghetto a map of Treblinka, the killing center for Jews on the Warsaw Bialystok rail line where 925,000 were murdered between July 23, 1043 and August 4, 1943, so that it could be passed on to London through underground channels. Resistance fighters naively believed that if the world knew, they would act to rescue the beleaguered Jews – or at least to protest their murders. Even false hopes were useful in the struggle to survive.
Vladka was sent to the Aryan side to serve as an arms merchant, purchasing difficult to obtain weapons and clandestinely smuggling them to the young Jews willing to fight. One of the most gripping parts of the book is the description of her climbing the 11 foot wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto with dynamite on her back. Greene based his work on her early Yiddish memoir On Both Sides of the Wall, which is soon to be reissued in a new translation and her testimonies along with those of her husband Benjamin Meed, the legendary leader of the survivors’ movement. Through Greene’s writing and Vladka’s words, the reader experiences the ordinariness of her great heroism. She was fully dedicated to doing the job assigned to her, however dangerous, however precarious her existence. She sought no credit, uttered not a boastful word for her achievement, but merely did everything in her capacity to serve. One also experiences her anguish finding herself on the outside of the ghetto when the fighters confronted the invading German troops and their Ukrainian accomplices, killing fighters, setting the ghetto aflame block by block, building by building.
There is even a bit of romance, just enough to intrigue young readers. Vladka met the man who was to be her husband in the ghetto. She once told the story. She said to her companion: “my father is dead, my mother is dead, my brother is dead. I am going somewhere, and I can’t tell you where, but if I don’t return, I want someone to miss me. You can be my boyfriend.”
Out of such desperation, such loneliness was born love. Their first wedding was simple. Ben’s mother took off her ring, gave it to her son to place on Vladka’s finger, lifted a cup and said in Yiddish: “let it be with Mazal.” Only later was the marriage consecrated by a Rabbi under the Chuppa.
One must salute Scholastic for offering this series and admire Greene for choosing poignant stories, complex tales, which he tells in a manner that young readers can comprehend.
One must salute Scholastic for offering this series and admire Greene for choosing poignant stories, complex tales, which he tells in a manner that young readers can comprehend. His work is about young women who should not only children of the Holocaust but inspire them.