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.

Helping Students Become More Skilful at Managing Challenging Emotions through Mindfulness

by Shelley Murphy

We are facing great challenges and change in the midst of a pandemic and ongoing racial injustice. As a result, many of us are experiencing unrelenting waves of stress and worry in response to the uncertainties before us. A certain level of stress and worry during this time actually acts as a natural protector. It guides our behaviours in ways that are meant to help keep us safe. For this we can thank the natural intelligence and wisdom of our minds and bodies. At the same time, we need to be intentional about making sure that we are not getting caught in an ongoing and constant loop of fear and worry in ways that are no longer protective. It can be especially difficult to disrupt this ongoing loop in a time when our daily circumstances seem to require a constant need for vigilance. To stay healthy and resilient our minds need opportunities to build resilience.

When thinking about how to best support children at home and in school, it’s important for teachers and parents to give attention to their own emotional needs. We can go back to the message we receive on an airplane just before takeoff that reminds us to secure our own oxygen mask before supporting someone else with theirs. We are advised to do this because if we were to run out of oxygen in an emergency, we would be helpless to support anyone else. This is an important metaphor for life. When teachers focus on self-care, it ends up being protective for students as well. This is why if teachers or parents ask me to name the most powerful mindfulness practice for children, my answer is always the same: YOUR practice.  Even if teachers never introduce mindfulness to their students, if they commit to their own practice, there is almost always a positive ripple effect in the classroom.

We know from something called stress contagion that children will often take their cues from the adults around them. If we are feeling calm, the children around us are more likely to feel at ease. This doesn’t mean that teachers and parents shouldn’t talk about their feelings. In fact, by talking about our own feelings, we invite children to identify and share their own.

Science has shown that naming or labelling difficult emotions, like fear and worry, actually helps to loosen their grip. When students are in a heightened state of stress, the part of their brain that is necessary for thinking, reasoning, emotion regulation, and learning is less readily available to them. Teachers can provide children with opportunities to cultivate the skills they need to manage challenging emotions so they can meet each moment of their school day and beyond with less stress and greater awareness, attention, and resilience. Mindfulness of emotions helps them do that.

Mindfulness of one’s emotional experiences is central to well-being. Think of your students who are generally good at managing their emotions in positive ways. They are often the same students who show resilience when faced with challenges. Mindfulness practices and activities can help students to become more skilful at being aware of their emotions as they arise in the present moment and to become familiar with identifying, understanding, using, and managing their emotions in positive ways.

When students are able to identify and manage their own emotions (and those of other people) they are showing what has been called emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). Students with strong emotional intelligence are better at managing stress and conflict, showing empathy and kindness, communicating effectively, making informed decisions, building strong relationships, and overcoming challenges. Of course, as teachers know, there is a strong connection between a student’s emotions and their ability to manage their impulses. It is not surprising that research has shown that emotional intelligence is central to success and happiness in life. Studies show that regular mindfulness practice with emotions helps boost emotional intelligence by improving a student’s ability to self-regulate in different situations. Regular mindfulness practice helps students become better aware of the connection between their thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and behaviors. It helps to create some thoughtful space between a student’s actions and reactions. This space strengthens a student’s ability to respond more skilfully, instead of letting their feelings and emotional impulses govern their actions.

This is an especially important skill when students are confronted with stressful states and difficult emotions. Mindfulness helps children become better attuned to their feelings, which helps them manage and cope with life’s challenges. While students strengthen their emotional awareness through formal practices, the benefits extend throughout the course of their day, as they become increasingly aware of their emotions and how they influence their responses.

One way to help children become better at recognizing, naming, and managing their emotions is through Emotion Mapping (see below). This activity gives students an opportunity to take some time to pay attention to how and where they are feeling an emotion, and to give it a name. While children are better able to identify emotions when they are feeling them at their extreme, they are less able to notice and name them on the way to the extreme. Through practices like emotion mapping, students become better attuned to their emotions, which leads to a greater likelihood that they will be able to regulate them. With regular practice, children become better able to recognize and name a challenging feeling which, in turn, helps to reduce its impact and build resilience.

Tips for Teaching Mindfulness of Emotions

  • Invite: As always, use invitational language when introducing mindfulness activities to students.
  • Begin with the brain: I like to start mindfulness-of-emotion activities with a brief lesson on mindfulness and its impact on the brain. It gives students agency through helping them understand how their minds work and it creates a context for activities to come.
  • Teach as content: It’s helpful to think of emotions and social emotional awareness as content and skills you can teach as you would anything else (explain, model, allow for practice, provide feedback).
  • Teach for transfer: The goal is for students to learn about and practice these strategies within your class setting and then use what they have learned in their daily lives.
  • Find teachable moments: Find opportunities throughout the day to return to concepts learned; i.e. when students are emotionally reactive, upset, anxious, etc.
  • Set boundaries and expectations: In the midst of some of these activities, students may show their vulnerability. It is important to begin these activities with clear expectations about care, compassion, empathy, and respecting the rights and feelings of others.
  • Be trauma-sensitive: For all students, and especially for students who have a history of chronic stress and/or trauma, it is important to offer flexibility. At the outset, offer opportunities to take breaks or stop activities altogether. Be sure to monitor for dysregulation and offer care and compassion to help students process their reactions.
  • Differentiate: As you would differentiate for any other learning opportunity, plan for mindfulness activities with diverse student needs in mind.
  • Integrate mindfulness practices into a culturally responsive, equity-minded, and anti-racist approach to teaching and learning: Mindfulness can act as a tool to help both teachers and students develop awareness and compassion so they are resourced to take action towards more justice and peace in the world.

Teaching Kindness

by Eric Walters

As I typed that two-word title, I paused, and then added a question mark. What was I possibly going to say in a few hundred words that would make that goal possible? Yet, the morning has just begun, the sun is still rising, and I am hopeful. So, let me try.

Empathy, simply put, involves the ability to understand the feelings of others. Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and activist, famously said, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” I believe her. I believe stories are an integral part of who we are. We tell stories to entertain, educate, impact emotionally, and communicate. We have an inherent need to tell, and hear, stories.

In my picture books My Name Is Blessing, Hope Springs, and Today Is the Day, I tell stories inspired by the work I do in Kenya. They are about difficult truths and hopeful endings. These narratives are far removed from the day-to-day world
of almost all of those who read the stories. I want them to see this other world,
to understand other situations and other lives, and to spend a few moments
inside another life. I often hear from teachers how these stories have emotionally
affected their students — and them. Teachers will tell me that they were moved
to tears. I often ask them what they are going to do with those tears. To quote
from a famous song by Northern Lights in 1985 — “Tears Are Not Enough.”

Empathy + Action = Kindness

As teachers, writers, and parents, we want to help our children understand the feelings and situations of others — especially those going through tragedy, trauma, and difficult life circumstances — but that’s only the first step. If we take them only that far, we’re not taking them far enough. We need to model for them acts of kindness, and further, allow them the opportunity to be kind. Once you read the book, what will you do about it? How do words and pictures become feelings and how do these feelings become actions?

I maintain that the most selfish thing you can do is help somebody — because it feels so good inside. And, when you do it once you’re going to want to do it again, and again, and again. Allow students the opportunity to experience empa-thy and to act in kindness. Malala Yousafzai said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

You can be that teacher.

*taken from Teaching Tough Topics by Larry Swartz.