As a child, I learned about the Holocaust in the 4th grade through the wonderful books The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (as well as a little known book Escape from Warsaw by Ian Serraillier, which I still have my tattered copy of). These books were instrumental in helping me conceptualize the horrors of what happened to Jewish men, women, and children, but also how a group of people persevered with hope and strength. These books were placed in my hands at the perfect time developmentally, and even as an adult, I still have vivid memories of Annemarie and the casket in Lowry’s Number the Stars and the tension I felt when Hannah opened the door to welcome the prophet Elijah.
Like all kids learning about the world, I remember being horrified that something like this could’ve happened, and can recall pummeling my mother and father with questions that had no real answers. I remember the awkward expressions that donned the faces of my Jewish classmates as every non-Jewish kid stared at them, waiting for their reactions to the things our teacher told us about the Holocaust. I remember walking home from school with my Jewish friend Stephanie, wanting to ask if her grandparents survived the camps, but felt too ashamed to do so. Well-written books about the Holocaust helped me find avenues into the complexities of this horrific event. I do wonder if these books help Jewish children grapple with this inherited burden? Or do the books have more of a profound impact on non-Jewish people who are “witnessing” the horrors of another group? (I’ll have to pose the question to my fellow TWB Alyson Gerber .)
Being exposed to the tragedy of the Holocaust helped me wrestle with past atrocities related to the Black American community. Fifth grade was the year we learned about American Slavery and the Middle Passage. Now I was in the hot seat the same way my Jewish counterparts had been the year before. Faces turned to look at me and the three other black kids in class (Kara, Brett, and Whitney). I knew vaguely about slavery, as I grew up with southern parents and grandparents who had left the south for a reason. But my parents didn’t prepare me for what I was going to learn in school.
Our teacher showed us clips from the movie Roots and we read excerpts from slave narratives and folktales, as there were no books for us to read about this experience at that time. It was horrific coming face to face with the painful reality of how your people came to America. But my teacher connected it back to the Holocaust and the values of strength, perseverance, and overcoming adversity. I think learning about the Holocaust helped prepare me for the details about American slavery and the Black slave experience. Being able to read about the terrible things that happened to Jewish people helped me confront the horrible things that happened Black people, and start to grapple with the inherited burden in my past.
Coming full circle, as a former third/fourth grade teacher, I taught Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, and was able to use the horrific event of the Holocaust as a way to explore other human atrocities, and help students from diverse backgrounds start to think about how they can relate to this terrible event in human history. I am thankful for top-notch children’s literature on the Holocaust as a vehicle to explore what happened and ensure that it will never happen again.
In the words of President Obama, “We must heed the urgency to listen to and care for the last living survivors, camp liberators and the witnesses to the Shoah. And we must meet our sacred responsibility to honor all those who perished by recalling their courage and dignity in the face of unspeakable atrocities, by insisting that the world never forget them, and by always standing up against intolerance and injustice.”
Photo Credit: Sandpiper, Puffin, ArmyMWR, Yisi.org