Canadian Children’s Literature as Stepping-Stones to Understanding the Holocaust

by Larry Swartz

Imagine a boy or girl reading the iconic title The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. How did the student come to read that book? What prior knowledge might that reader have about the Holocaust that will that prepare them for grasping the power of this Jewish girl and her family’s story about hiding in the Secret Annex? What questions about Nazi power will be raised by reading about Anne Frank’s family? Where and how will the students find answers to those questions?

Imagine a student reading historical fiction about a Jewish child who is struggling to survive under Nazi oppression, and who desperately seeks a place of refuge. Perhaps the student is reading a title by a Canadian author: Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, Good-bye Marianne by Irene Watts, or The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser by Kathy Kacer. What if the reader of that book is Jewish? Catholic? Hindu? Muslim? What if the reader of that book is of German ancestry? How does the story of a Jewish quest for refuge connect to the student’s own religion and culture? What might that story teach them about humanity and resilience that they can apply to their own lives?

Imagine a student, Jewish or not, who is walking in his neighbourhood and sees graffiti of a swastika scrawled on a wall near his home. Does that child understand why this is a hate crime? Can the child begin to grasp where this hate came from, or have knowledge and understanding of the slaughter of six million Jews and other persecuted groups in what is known as the Holocaust?

Building Awareness, Understanding and Compassion through Literature

Studying the Holocaust can help students to understand the roots of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping. When students read or listen to stories about the Holocaust, they may begin to grasp the horrors of war, the dangers of dictatorship, and the politics of religious intolerance. Children’s literature can take students to other times, other places and when the characters and settings are drawn from historical events, readers are mining narratives where facts and fiction merge. Reading picture books, fiction, and nonfiction texts can be a stepping-stone into learning about the Holocaust, and this learning can open students’ minds and hearts to the harsh facts of genocide. Author Kathy Kacer has informed us that stories about the Holocaust can offer lessons, not only about hatred and power, but also about compassion, strength, and selflessness, and these are lessons for the ages.

Many students in today’s schools have limited knowledge or even awareness of the atrocities of the Holocaust. If young people haven’t encountered media and texts about the killing of six million Jews, then schools are likely the forum for introducing this tough topic — either through a community of readers who delve into a title, or through reading experiences where students can choose to read titles that they need or want to read. What age is too young? What information can students grasp at different developmental stages and grade levels? What information is enough? What information is too much?

Teaching Holocaust history demands strong sensitivity and acute awareness of the complexity connected to the content. As with other tough, but vital, topics, a children’s literature title can open doors to learning and understanding. The fear of not having enough information may discourage some teachers from embarking on the topic. It need not. Teachers and parents are not obliged to have all the answers to young readers’ questions, but they should be prepared for questions to be revealed and subsequently investigated.

Introducing the topic of the Holocaust connects students to the past and present, encouraging them to contemplate their own role in creating inclusion and harmony. In this way, Holocaust education can help students to develop their social awareness and understanding of social justice, diversity, and equity. Exposing young people to this period in history should be a priority in order to make them aware of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry which still exist in today’s world. The classroom can plant the seeds for possible change. International titles such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (fiction), Refugee by Alan Gratz (historical fiction), The Diary of Anne Frank (nonfiction), White Bird R.J. Palacio (graphic text), and Erika’s Story by Ruth Vander Zee (picture book) have given students strong insights into the history of the Holocaust. Along with popular titles from other countries, Canada can certainly celebrated by for the talent, wisdom, and dedicated research of significant authors who have served literature that can proudly sit on shelves of titles about living through and beyond the Holocaust. Philosopher George Santayana has written “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When young people read and respond to books on the Holocaust, they can grow in their understanding of the complexities of history, its impact on the present and perhaps come to believe in the words written by Anne Frank: “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Books Build Understanding

The following list highlights Canadian titles about the Holocaust that can be considered as essentials to help students gain an understanding not only of antisemitism, but of resilience and hope. These five books of Holocaust remembrance were selected as representations of different genres suitable for different ages. Many of the novels and picture books suggested are drawn from true stories and the nonfiction titles provide testimonies of those who lived through, bore witness to, or were family members of holocaust survivors.

THE PROMISE by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal (Picture Book) / grades 3 +

This picture book tells the story based on true events, of two sisters, Rachel and Topgy who were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The narrative and powerful visual images depict danger the girls faced, especially, when forced to separate. Three gold coins and a promise they had given to their parents keep the two sisters hopeful in their striving to survive.

HANA’S SUITCASE: A true story by Karen Levine (Biography) / grades 5-8

Hana was a Czech girl who died in the Holocaust. The book provides an account of how the curator of a Japanese Holocaust centre learned about Hana’s life after a suitcase was sent to her. The story of Hana’s suitcase has helped children all over the world dig into pages that help them to learn about the terrible history of what happened during World War II and invites them to heed the warnings of history. This title is one of Canada’s most awarded children’s books.

DANIEL’S STORY by Carol Matas (Historical Fiction) / grades 5-8

Daniel’s family is forced from their home in Frankfurt, Germany, and sent on a dangerous journey to a Nazi death camp. Daniel courageously struggles for survival and finds hope and life in the midst of despair. This book was written in 1993 to coincide with an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Though fictional, Daniel provides readers with a young teenage character who inspires and helps to make sense of and question the dreadful realities of the Holocaust.

GOOD-BYE MARIANNE: A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany by Irene N. Watts, illustrated by Kathryn E. Shoemaker (Graphic text) / grades 5-8

Marianne Kohn’s world collapses when as a Jewish student she was expelled from a German State school. The Gestapo forced their way into Marianne’s family home, destroying all their property. The story begins on November 15, 1938 — one week after the Night of the Broken Glass / Kristallnacht, when synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed by order of the Nazi government. The possibility of Marianne escaping Berlin is provided by Kindertransport, the rescue trains bound for England for unaccompanied children under sixteen. This book was first published as a novel in 1998, but was released in graphic format in 2008.

BRANDED BY THE PINK TRIANGLE by Ken Setterington (Nonfiction/YA) / grades 8+

Setterington has done extensive research into the plight of homosexuals under the rise of the Nazi Party. Homosexuals, along with Jews and other groups, were imprisoned in concentration camps. The author presents a timeline of events of those who were persecuted and those who campaigned for human rights. He writes about the fears of raids, and the ugliness of prison sentences that became a reality for homosexuals, who were branded by the pink triangle sewn into prison uniforms.