A Brief Historiography of Holocaust Children’s Literature

The field of Holocaust-related children’s literature has been studied and debated for decades. Within those years, Holocaust scholars have been grappling with storytelling obligations. How does one talk or write about the Holocaust?

Within a two-year period, three significant books were published on the subject by literature scholars Hamida Bosmajian (2002), Adrienne Kertzer (2002), and Lydia Kokkola (2003). Each chooses specific texts for analysis. Each bases her selection and analysis on a different purpose and approach. However, they conclude collectively that special considerations are to be taken into account:

  • The maturity of a young audience to comprehend Holocaust stories
  • The tipping point between protecting children and telling the unvarnished truth
  • Reconciling art with atrocity
  • Offering hope without trauma
  • Capturing attention without exploiting the subject, victim, or reader

sparing-the-childIn Sparing the Child: Grief and the Unspeakable in Youth Literature about Nazism and the Holocaust, Bosmajian, born in Hamburg, Germany in 1936, presents both victim and perpetrator perspectives. The texts she selects for analysis include:

  • Maurice Sendak’s Dear Mili, A Brothers Grimm fairy tale published with Sendak’s illustrations in 1988
  • Hans Peter Richter’s fictionalized autobiographical trilogy—Friedrich (1961), I Was There (1962/1964), and The Time of the Young Soldiers (1967)
  • Ruth Minsky Sender’s memoirs—The Cage (1986), To Life (1988), and The Holocaust Lady (1992)

Her analysis begins during the Hitler period and focuses somewhat on Hitler Youth. Such texts, for the most part, were generated by those who were directly involved. These are certainly important contributions to Holocaust literature. But are they remembered now? Have they been replaced by publications authored by succeeding generations?

my-mothers-voiceAdrienne Kertzer’s My Mother’s Voice examines children’s Holocaust literature to explore the questions Kertzer asks relative to learning about her own mother’s Holocaust experiences. She analyzes some of the same texts as Bosmajian and Kokkola, such as Richter and Spiegelman, and addresses the following and many others:

  • Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl
  • Aranka Siegal’s Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944 (1981)
  • Margaret Wild’s Let the Celebrations Begin (1991), a controversial picture book
  • Carol Matas’ Daniel’s Story (1993)

Kertzer devotes much space to memoir and fictionalized memoir. She notes that young child survival was rare and that this fact contributes to “Why, more than 50 years after the end of World War II, are we so fascinated with narratives (memoir, fiction, film) that explore questions of Holocaust survival with child protagonists than the adolescent survivors (Elie Wiesel’s Night) and adolescent victims (Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl) whose narratives published closer to the war have become canonical Holocaust texts?” (Kertzer, 197).

kokkolaIn Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature, Kokkola discusses the rise in the number of publications classified as Holocaust children’s literature, noting novels, biographies, and picture books. She intentionally excludes diaries and testimonies, and poetry but includes narratives that address Nazi persecution of Romani, mischlings, Catholics, Slavs, and gays in addition to Jewish. In addition to Sender, Sendak, Wild, Matas, and Richter, Kokkola analyzes among numerous others:

  • David Adler’s One Yellow Daffodil (1995)
  • Erich Hacki’s Farewell Sidonia (1992)
  • Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies (1991)
  • Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1987)

She opts for breadth and thematic analysis versus depth. In this way, Kokkola covers the broad landscape that is Holocaust literature, including post-liberation and postwar recovery across borders.

These literature reviews followed guides published in the mid- to late 1990s, specifically Martin Goldberg’s “Children’s Autobiographies and Diaries of the Holocaust” (1996), Claire Rudin’s Children’s Books about the Holocaust (1998), and Edward Sullivan’s The Holocaust in Literature for Youth (1999). A notable guide to also mention is the Jewish Publication Society’s 2010 annotated directory of Jewish children’s literature, Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens, compiled by well-respected librarian Linda Silver. She recommends fiction and nonfiction titles from about 1970 on. These include classic titles as well as newer additions such as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2006) and Margarita Engle’s Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba (2009), a novel in verse, in the fiction category, and Karen Levine’s Hana’s Suitcase (2003) and Peter Schroeder/Dagmar Schroeder-Hildebrand’s Six Million Paper Clips: The Making of a Children’s Holocaust Memorial (2004) in the nonfiction category.

Since the introduction of the Common Core and the need for mentor texts, Holocaust titles continue to be published. They expand on the scope covered by books of the 1980s and 1990s thematically, categorically, and geographically.

Holocaust educators weigh in

There’s a whole canon of scholarship relating to the study of children’s Holocaust literature emanating from Elementary and Secondary Education. Of particular note here are essays found in Teaching and Studying the Holocaust, edited by genocide scholar Samuel Totten and leading Holocaust educator Stephen Feinberg (2001). For example, Karen Shawn’s essay, “Choosing Holocaust Literature for Early Adolescents,” enumerates eight spot-on principles for book selection, ranging from choosing age- and developmentally-appropriate material to choosing material that offers classroom flexibility.

In her provocative essay, “‘What I Have Learned to Feel’: The Pedagogical Emotions of Holocaust Education,” (1996), Rachel Baum poses the question: What is it that Holocaust literature teaches that history books alone do not? (College Literature 23 (3): October 1996, 44). Her response is that the literature teaches the reader to feel about the historical facts. Four years later, Elizabeth R. Bauer proposed in her The Lion and the Unicorn article, “A New Algorithm in Evil: Children’s Literature in a Post-Holocaust World,” (2000) also outlined criteria to gauge the effectiveness of children’s Holocaust literature. She insists such literature should:

  • Grapple directly with the evil of the Holocaust
  • Present the Holocaust with appropriate complexity
  • Convey warnings about the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism
  • Give the reader a framework for response (quoting Lawrence Langer) and a sense of personal responsibility regarding prejudice, racism, and hatred

This said, she agrees with Totten and Feinberg that historical context must be set.

A call for action

With major scholarship contributions to the field of children’s Holocaust literature now more than a decade old, It is clear that a more up-to-date analysis is called for. The searchable database on this site can help support that. However, it inventories only narratives related in some way to Jewish persecution and includes books published from 2002 until the present.