Representations of the Holocaust in Children's Literature

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Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
From: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 110. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview; Critical essay
Length: 2,153 words

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Chana Byers Abells
  • The Children We Remember: Photographs from the Archives of Yad Vashem (picture book) 1983
Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides, editors
  • Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege (juvenile nonfiction) 1989
David A. Adler
  • We Remember the Holocaust (juvenile nonfiction) 1989
  • Hilde and Eli: Children of the Holocaust [illustrations by Karen Ritz] (juvenile nonfiction) 1994
  • Child of the Warsaw Ghetto [illustrations by Karen Ritz] (juvenile nonfiction) 1995
  • Hiding from the Nazis [illustrations by Karen Ritz] (juvenile nonfiction) 1997
  • A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz Korczak and His Children [illustrations by Bill Farnsworth] (juvenile biography) 2002
Eve Bunting
  • Terrible Things [illustrations by Stephen Gammell] (picture book) 1980
Moshe Flinker
  • Hana'ar Moshe: Yoman shel Moshe Flinker [Young Moshe's Diary: The Spiritual Torment of a Jewish Boy in Nazi Europe] (diary) 1958
Anne Frank
  • Het Achterhuis [Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl] (diary and memoirs) 1947
  • The Diary of Anne Frank: The Definitive Edition [edited by Otto Frank and Mirjam Pressler] (diary, essays, and memoirs) 1995
Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti
  • Rose Blanche [illustrations by Roberto Innocenti] (young adult novel) 1985
Judith Kerr
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea (picture book) 1968
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (juvenile fiction) 1971
  • The Other Way Round (juvenile fiction) 1975
Lois Lowry
  • Number the Stars (juvenile fiction) 1989
Carol Matas
  • Lisa (juvenile fiction) 1987
  • Jesper (juvenile fiction) 1989
  • Daniel's Story (juvenile fiction) 1993
Doris Orgel
  • The Devil in Vienna (young adult novel) 1978
Uri Orlev
  • The Island on Bird Street (young adult novel) 1984
  • The Man from the Other Side (young adult novel) 1991
Gudrun Pausewang
  • The Final Journey (young adult novel) 1996
Johanna Reiss
  • The Upstairs Room (autobiography) 1972
Hans Peter Richter
  • Friedrich [translated by Edite Kroll] (juvenile fiction) 1961
Maurice Sendak
  • Dear Mili: An Old Tale by Wilhelm Grimm [translated by Ralph Manheim] (picture book) 1988
Aranka Siegel
  • Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939-1944 (young adult novel) 1981
  • Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation, 1945-1948 (young adult novel) 1985
Dawid Sierakowiak
  • The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto [edited by Alan Adelson] (diary) 1960
Art Spiegelman
  • *Maus: A Survivor's Tale I: My Father Bleeds History (graphic novel) 1986
  • Maus: A Survivor's Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began (graphic novel) 1991
  • ††The Complete Maus (drawings, journal entries, and recordings) 1994
Cynthia Voigt
  • David and Jonathan (young adult novel) 1992
Margaret Wild
  • Let the Celebrations Begin! [illustrations by Julie Vivas] (picture book) 1991
Jane Yolen
  • The Devil's Arithmetic (young adult novel) 1988
  • Briar Rose (young adult novel) 1992


The Holocaust is a difficult subject to explain to any literary audience, particularly children. It is believed over eleven million people from various "undesirable" groups--including Jews, Gypsies (or Roma), homosexuals, Slavs, dissidents, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a host of other victimized peoples--were killed in a variety of horrific manners by Germany's Nazi regime as part of their infamous, genetic-cleansing "Final Solution" during World War II. The Jewish people, plagued by long-simmering negative stereotypes in Europe, suffered the most--over six million killed--with many native populations almost completely destroyed by either mass exodus or murder.

Holocaust children's literature has always been controversial. Though some feel that the subject matter is inappropriate for young audiences, others argue that children must be educated about such a significant historical event. Thusly, Holocaust children's texts have taken many forms throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, while there has not been a wealth of Holocaust-related material for pre-adolescent readers, several works of Holocaust literature do exist in the picture book format, which can generally divided into two disparate forms. The first relies on creating an allegorical universe in which the Holocaust is dealt with as more of a generality. These stories function primarily as an introduction to evil--rather than an account of the historical details of the Holocaust--and, as such, are handled with a marked gentleness. One notable example, Eve Bunting's Terrible Things (1980), utilizes a quiet forest of animals to revisit a famous homily by German dissident Martin Niemoller. A Lutheran pastor in Berlin during the war, Niemoller was an initial supporter of Hitler until the true intentions of the Nazi regime became clear. Imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp for his opposition, Niemoller survived the camps and become an advocate for publicly acknowledging the German atrocities of World War II. The pastor was perhaps most celebrated for his simple analogy: "They came first for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me--and by that time no one was left to speak up." Bunting's story evokes this simple parable, inserting an unseen dark force--the "Terrible Things"--for the Nazis. Over the course of Bunting's short picture book, the Terrible Things first take all the birds from the forest, and then one by one, all the other species disappear until only the rabbits are left.

Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche (1985)--referred to alternately by critics as a picture book or a young adult novel--is an anomaly in illustrated Holocaust children's literature in that, not only does the title character come into contact with the harsh realities of the concentration camps, but she also dies within the course of helping those imprisoned. Significantly, Rose is no older than ten or twelve herself, and Innocenti's drawings of the camp she visits, while not graphic, are indeed unsettling. After witnessing the suffering of those in the concentration camp, Rose returns daily to offer food. She spend weeks providing whatever succor she can, but is tragically killed by a bullet on the day of the camp's liberation by Allied soldiers. Initially rejected by numerous publishers, the book's release sparked a minor controversy. In her review of Rose Blanche, librarian Lorraine Douglas found merit in the work's message, describing it as "a difficult book to classify, as the text is easy enough for a young child to read alone, and it has the appearance of a picture book but the content of the text and illustrations is full of emotional impact and subtlety." In many ways, the book personifies many of the central questions surrounding how to represent the Holocaust in children's literature.

Critic Eric Kimmel has defined four types of young adult and juvenile novels within the genre of children's Holocaust fiction: resistance, flight, occupation, and concentration camp novels. In the works of resistance, the books mainly seek to honor the vital roles resistors played in saving the lives of millions. Newbery Medal-winning Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry exemplifies this group, documenting the little-known story of the salvation of the Danish Jews. On September 29, 1943, the Danish resistance discovered that the Nazis were preparing to shepherd all of Denmark's small population of Jews into the concentration camps. In order to spare them, a flotilla of Danish boats ushered every Jew to neutral Sweden. Lowry's text also typifies another common trend within Holocaust children's fiction, featuring a teenaged protagonist who, despite threats to her very life, is able to find a happy ending. In flight, the second form of juvenile Holocaust fiction, authors document the stories of children and their families who had the foresight to leave their homelands before the Nazis invaded. Judith Kerr's When Hitler Stole Pink Bunny (1971) is a prime example of this model. In the book, nine-year-old Anna, her older brother Max, and their family live in Berlin in 1933. As World War II approaches, Anna witnesses dramatic changes in her hometown and the people around her. One day, her father disappears, and her mother suddenly takes Anna and Max to England where their father is waiting. In "flight" books, significant attention is paid to everything that had to be left behind--in Kerr's text, this is symbolized by Anna's treasured pink stuffed bunny--as well as the emotional impact of starting a new life in a foreign culture. These stories commonly feature autobiographical elements, as they are often reflective of the true tales of many survivors who went on to record their struggles. Such is the case with Kerr, who fled Germany much in the same way as her protagonist Anna.

The third category, the occupational novel, relates the daily accounts of life under the Nazi regime. Many texts of this genre chronicle the difficulties in maintaining friendships between Jews and Gentiles during wartime; such works include Doris Orgel's The Devil in Vienna (1978), Norwegian author Aimee Sommerfelt's Miriam (1950), and German author Hans Peter Richter's Friedrich (1961). The final category of Holocaust fiction for children, works that focus on the concentration camps, is also the least common. As it was with Innocenti's Rose Blanche, the suitability of presenting the most horrific details of the Holocaust is still widely debated. Perhaps the most prominent works of this type include Gudrun Pausewang's The Final Journey (1996), Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic (1988), and Margaret Wild's Let the Celebrations Begin! (1991). In The Final Journey, Alice Dubsky narrates her story from within the confines of a train headed to Auschwitz. Alice has had the truth of the Jewish situation kept from her as she spent the last two years hiding in her grandparents' home. After her family's location is disclosed, she begins to realize the enormity of her situation as people (including her grandfather) die in the cramped quarters of the train. The words "concentration camp" are never actually used, but the reader is definitely aware of Alice's approaching fate, even if Alice is not. The Devil's Arithmetic recounts modern-day Hannah's boredom at her family's annual Passover dinner until a freak occurrence sends her back in time, into the body of a young Polish concentration camp resident named Chaya. As the reality of her situation sets in, Hannah/Chaya becomes an integral cog in the camp's daily events and even willingly takes the place of another young girl, Rivka, in the execution chamber. Suddenly transported back to her Passover dinner, Hannah realizes that Rivka was none other than her own aunt, who speaks tenderly of Chaya's sacrifice. Wild's Celebrations is another picture book similar to Rose Blanche, although Wild utilizes more cartoon-like illustrations as well as a relatively simpler and more optimistic plot.

The most well-known Holocaust children's literature is told through the personal narrative, communicated through the pages of the diaries of children who struggled to survive throughout the Nazi regime. Among the most-studied include the diaries of Moshe Flinker (1926-1944), a Dutch orthodox Jew who fled to Belgium with his family before a Jewish informer revealed their presence, resulting in Moshe's death at Auschwitz; Eva Heyman (1931-1944), a Hungarian girl killed with her grandparents at Auschwitz; Dawid Sierakowiak (1924-1943), a talented young writer who recorded the suffering of the Polish Lodz Ghetto before his eventual death of tuberculosis; and most famously, Anne Frank (1929-1945), who hid in an attic with her family in Amsterdam before her capture and eventual death at Bergen-Belsen. The diarist is a firsthand witness, retelling history and personalizing it in a way that no other form of literature can offer. Hedda Rosner Kopf has commented that, "the diary is a more immediate and often more accurate account of events and the writer's responses to them. Diary entries, however, do not have the benefit of the writer's understanding of how those events were resolved or what they would come to mean in the writer's life. For the most part, the diary entries are made up of the raw material of the self." The war was a period of stress for every member of the family. The emotional burden was overwhelming and, for a child who did not want to add to the problems of the family, the diary was a refuge where they could turn to release their own fears. For example, Moshe Flinker writes of his dedication to religion and a God he held in the highest faith, even when the walls around him seemed to be closing in. Not without doubt, Flinker's diary nevertheless depicts a young man coming to terms with his essential belief in God. Anne Frank, a secular Jew, depicts a very different reality in her diary. Perhaps the most famous piece of juvenile Holocaust literature, Het Achterhuis (1947; Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl) chronicles the life of a tender young woman dealing with the dread and anticipation of her possible capture while approaching her own adolescence. Eleanor Roosevelt famously described Frank's diary as "one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read."

Footnotes:*Early versions of chapters 1 through 6 originally appeared in Raw magazine between 1980 and 1985. The chapter "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" originally appeared in Short Order Comix #1 in 1973.
†Early versions of chapters 1 through 4 originally appeared in Raw magazine between 1986 and 1991.
††The Complete Maus was released as a CD-ROM, combining artwork, movies, and recordings of interviews with Spiegelman's father.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1410001518