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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?

Marjorie Ingall
January 30, 2012
(Quinn Dombrowski)
(Quinn Dombrowski)

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.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.