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Holocaust Education? There’s an App for That.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is a prime opportunity to educate children about the Shoah, but you’d be a wise parent to steer clear of these two apps.

Marjorie Ingall
May 02, 2016

When you think about elementary education, do you think: “I find it a good idea to introduce horrific, incomprehensible subjects in an age-inappropriate manner that could haunt a child forever, and I find it best to do that via an impersonal, hand-held device that allows a child to have emotionally shattering experiences solo, without parental or pedagogical support, on the same tech-toy they use to play Talking Tom”?

Yes? Well, then, as Yom HaShoah approaches, you will love these two Holocaust apps for children.

Auschwitz: A Tale of Wind” (available for iOS; suggested ages: 9-11; $1.99) is a well-drawn, cartoon-y animated interactive graphic novel about two small children who are sent by cattle car to the concentration camp with their dad. On the way, the father amuses the children with stories about their fellow passengers—a man with a nose like a strawberry (poke his nose, and it turns into a strawberry!) and a woman with a hat like a flowerpot (poke the hat, and flowers grow out!). The children remember their mother, long ago, on a beautiful beach…but the train arrives at Auschwitz, and there are scary dogs and angry men. (Poke the Nazis to make them yell “Schnell! Schnell! Juden!” Imagine a small child doing this, and feel physically ill!)

The father says goodbye, smiling and waving, and promises that tomorrow they will be together again. (Poke the screen, and make barbed wire appear, blocking the father from his kids!) The children are herded into a changing barracks and then toward showers. (Poke the screen to make flames shoot up from the crematoria chimneys!) In the barracks, the little girl narrator remembers “the roundup,” when she and her fellow Jews were herded from their town. (Poke the windows, already helpfully graffiti’d with “JUIFS,” and watch them shatter! Touch the people on the street wearing yellow stars, and watch them fade away!) We see the children’s naked backs—the rest of their nude bodies hidden by angry gray brushstrokes and swirls of paint—as they’re sent into a gray smear full of “flakes of soap.” (Poke the flakes! They fly up into the sky, creating a hole in all the gray, a view to heaven with fluffy clouds!) The final animation shows the children reunited with their mother, walking on the beach. “When my mother ran to us I could feel the soft fabric of her dress on my cheeks…it was summer again,” the narrative concludes. There are clickable maps of ghettos and camps and a war timeline (1933-45). Is the art beautiful? Yes! Is it age-appropriate? No! Is it pedagogically irresponsible? Hell yeah! Should you buy it? Hell, no! Do I think it should be banned? Also, again, no!)

The other app, “Helga Deen,”(available for iOS; suggested ages: 9+, free) is even more physically beautiful, its aesthetic more like fine art; painterly, sophisticated and lush. It has a steady soundtrack of rain and mournful violin. It too is an interactive sequential art story, this one based on the diary of a real-life Dutch schoolgirl named Helga Deen. Her diary, which was discovered in 2004, was written as a letter to her boyfriend Kees. Helga and her family, like the Franks, had spent years in hiding in Amsterdam before being betrayed and deported. Helga was sent to the Vught camp, then to Sobibor, where she died at 18.

In the app, Nazis eyes glow red, a horror-movie touch in an otherwise realistic visual style. Touch each panel and it lights up with a forlorn, low glow. Beams of light filter through barracks windows, steadily flickering as though cut by searchlights. There are tiny dust motes moving in the air. It’s gorgeously detailed and cinematic: the trickle of thousands of water droplets make puddles twinkle, the wet asphalt surfaces of the camp roads shimmer. In classic comic-book style, words like “drip drop” and “CLUNK” appear as text. Some panels feature small black clickable dots, which provide a sentence or two of historical background.

The story is barely a story. It shows Helga taking care of a very little girl in her barracks, promising her that she will meet God and angels in the afterlife. Helga thinks of her boyfriend Kees, and promises that he’ll protect them. “If you listen carefully, you can hear his breathing in the darkness,” she tells the small child. “I can hear him, the girl exclaims!” Helga whispers, “He’s our angel… he will come with us to the good Lord from Paradise, on a horse made from clouds.” When the Nazis try to pry the child from her arms, Helga willingly goes with her to her doom. The app ends with a photo of the real Helga, a beautiful teenager in black and white.

Despite having Jewish characters, neither of these heaven-angel-afterlife-centric books offers a very Jewish perspective on death. (Both apps, were created by Italian digital companies; they’re available in both Italian and English.) Helga Deen doesn’t make clear what is fact and what is fiction, a cardinal sin in historical biography aimed at children. I’d argue that this one might work for teenagers as a supplement to reading the diary itself, along with discussion of the app’s flaws—both philosophical and pedagogical – for teenagers who are already familiar with the Holocaust and adults who can comfortably talk about it with them. I can’t recommend the terrifying, hopeless Tale of Wind to anyone.

On the one hand, I want to applaud both apps for figuring out how to make Holocaust stories engaging. On the other hand, I remind you that the Holocaust already has an outsize impact on Jewish identity; that there already are a few age-appropriate and non-overwhelming introductions (IN BOOK FORM! FOR PARENTS AND CHILDREN TO EXPERIENCE TOGETHER!) to the Holocaust for small children; and that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers guidelines for teaching kids about the Holocaust (applicable, actually, to teaching about any horrifying event in history or today): Define terms carefully, make responsible methodological and pedagogical choices, avoid simple answers to complex questions, strive for balance in establishing different perspectives, and avoid comparisons of pain. Small children should not be poking Nazis to make them scream “Schnell, Juden.”

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.