Today is a day for reflection. Holocaust Memorial Day is a chance for us to remember that millions of people, mainly Jews, died during the Second World War in concentration camps.
In the run-up to today, I have heard fear expressed that, as time progresses, knowledge of those atrocities will be forgotten or simply not learned by younger generations, the liberation of Auschwitz was, after all, nearly 70 years ago. Some might wonder if we need to take this forward in time as we get further away from what happened.
However, just as we should never forget the sacrifices made during the two World Wars by our servicemen, we should never forget what happened seven decades ago to ordinary people caught up in the madness of a time. Genocides happen at all times and in many places throughout the world, and it is up to us to remember what happened. This is where books are play a vital role.
The holocaust and other instances of genocide are not easy topics to read about with a child but there are good books out there that provide a gentler introduction.
Karen Hesse’s The Cats in Krasinski Square is a picture book based on real story about how the cats in a Jewish Ghetto helped save the lives of some of its inhabitants.
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Equally Ian McEwan’s Rose Blanche takes the form of a picture book but the content is much more disturbing. It tells the story of a young German girl who discovers a concentration camp near her home and seeks to help the inmates by taking them food, not understanding what is happening there. The story isn’t frank in its approach but what happens in it could be too much for younger minds, so I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone aged under 8 at least.
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You can read our review of both these books here.
Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is good for readers who are tackling longer chapter books. It concerns the story of young Anna (based on Judith Kerr herself as a child) and her childhood experience of exile, living life on the run with her Jewish parents. It gives enough historical detail for children to understand what life is like as a refugee without it being too disturbing. We’ve reviewed it as part of a round-up of books with strong fathers as figures here.
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As part of the same post, you’ll also find a brief review of perhaps the most famous autobiography to come out of the Jewish experience of the Second World War: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which I think is more suited to children aged 10 or above, due to some of the content.
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How to read about difficult subjects with young children
I am no expert on this and I think that how well a child can cope with difficult subjects will depend on each individual child and also on what frightens them. Holly, for example, read all of the Harry Potter books last year, even the last, darker ones, but cannot read The Witches by Roald Dahl.
My main method is to order the books and then read through them beforehand. If they’re longer than picture books, I read reviews to see what others have said and try to make a more informed decision. I will then tell Holly what they are about and see if it’s something that she’s interested in and can cope with. We start off gently and we leave enough time to talk about issues that come up, should she want to. If something is too hard for her and she’s really not enjoying a book, we stop. There’s no point in carrying on something that she dislikes or finds upsetting, even if it’s for a good reason. There is a time and a place for everything. If the book is based on an actual event, we will talk about what happened and why the author wrote a book about it. This seems to help articulate why the written word is so important as a testimony to what has happened in the world.
For older readers
Having read the above books with Holly about the Holocaust, I moved on to read a few adult books. There were three in particular that stayed with me a long time after I had read them:
The first two are by Primo Levi: If This is a Man and the follow-up Truce. Both relate Levi’s time as a Jewish prisoner in several concentration camps, and the time he spent afterwards trying to return to his native Italy after the war. What I never realised was the hardship the inmates had to endure after they had been liberated – for them the war did not stop when the Nazis had been conquered. Levi could have been very bitter in his descriptions of what happened but his narrative style is surprisingly objective and matter of fact. He does not of course condone anything but his recollection portray a side of camp life that does not perhaps gain as much recognition as others.
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The third book I read was by Elie Wiesel, entitled Night, which won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. Similar to Levi’s, the book is a recollection of Elie Wiesel’s time in concentration camps, alongside his father, who eventually died while still a prisoner and about whose death Wiesel still feels guilty. Wiesel explains his decision to write Night in the following eloquent quote:
‘The moment the war ended, I believed — we all did — that anyone who survived death must bear witness. Some of us even believed that they survived in order to become witnesses. But then I knew deep down that it would be impossible to communicate the entire story. Nobody can. I personally decided to wait, to see during 10 years if I would be capable to find the proper words, the proper pace, the proper melody or maybe even the proper silence to describe the ineffable.’
Regardless of his fear, Wiesel does manage to convey the ineffable in a haunting but necessary memoir. The following quotation sums up for me exactly why we have a duty to take a few moments of our life to remember what happened all those years ago.
‘How can we therefore speak, unless we believe that our words have meaning, that our words will help others to prevent my past from becoming another person’s — another peoples’ — future. Yes, our stories are essential — essential to memory. I believe that the witnesses, especially the survivors, have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, “I was there.”
Image and quotes courtesy of http://www.npr.org