Reading the Shards and Fragments: Holocaust Literature for Young Readers

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,231 words

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[(essay date April 1997) In the essay below, Russell contrasts The Devil's Arithmetic, with the novels Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, and Friedrich by Hans Richter, pointing out the ways that each novel documents the calamitous event of the Holocaust and how each offers ethical lessons.]

A great many books about the Holocaust have been written for young people over the years, and, like all books about the Holocaust, they are unsettling, even painful to read. The Holocaust is among the most difficult topics for a young reader to approach. There are those who deplore any attempt at writing Holocaust literature, claiming, with Michael Wyschogrod, that "art is not appropriate to the holocaust. Art takes the sting out of suffering. Any attempt to transform the holocaust into art demeans the holocaust and must result in poor art" (qtd. in Rosenfeld 14). But the more persuasive argument lies with those who insist that not to speak out is a greater injustice, that it is "blasphemy to remain silent" and give Hitler "one more posthumous victory" (Rosenfeld 14). When we are considering literature for children, we must inevitably confront the question as to whether such a grim topic is at all appropriate for young minds. It reminds us of the age-old argument over the fairy tales--another case in which adults so frequently underestimate children. A great deal of evidence suggests that children from about the ages of ten or twelve and up are fully capable of dealing with the fundamental issues of the Holocaust.1 (See Deverensky, Minarak, Sherman, and Zack for firsthand accounts of positive classroom experiences with Holocaust literature.) Indeed, the Holocaust should not be viewed as merely a suitable topic for young readers, but an important and necessary topic. And through the literature--diaries, reminiscences, novels--young people not only acquire exposure to the Nazi atrocities, they achieve a measure of perspective on their meaning. Contrary to what Wyschogrod says, art need not remove the sting from suffering and demean its subject--in fact, art, which focuses on the particular, may have greater power to move our emotions than do the numbing statistics of history. We are appalled at the death of millions, but we weep at the death of the one. As Eva Fleischner writes, "we can attain universality only through particularity: there are no shortcuts. The more we come to know about the Holocaust, how it came about, how it was carried out, etc., the greater the possibility that we will become sensitized to inhumanity and suffering whenever they occur" (qtd. in "Preface," Facing History and Ourselves xvii). Additionally, it is important to realize that art of the Holocaust is necessarily didactic art--the experience is too sobering for it to be otherwise. Stories of the Holocaust are like cautionary tales, warning us of the danger of complacency, reminding us of the tenuous thread on which human decency is at times suspended.

The Holocaust--its incomprehensible nature aside--is an extraordinarily complex and multifaceted experience. Recognizing that fact many years ago,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100083652