Teaching the Holocaust through literature: four books to help young people gain deeper understanding
A survey commissioned in 2019 revealed the shocking result that over half of Britons did not know that at least six millions Jews had been murdered during the Holocaust.
This result was all the more surprising given the fact that the Holocaust, as a topic, has been part of the national curriculum in England and Wales since its creation in 1991. The 2014 iteration of the national curriculum has the Holocaust as a firm part of key stage 3 history – compulsory for all 11 to 14-year-olds in state schools. Additionally, many secondary school pupils may encounter the Holocaust as a topic in English or religious education lessons.
However, research into what school pupils in England know about the Holocaust shows that they lack knowledge about its context. They may know bare facts – ghettos, deportations, concentration camps – but are less clear on the ideology that led to the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust in the first place. Pupils may not be clear what exactly it is they need to take away from those lessons and how they can be relevant to their contemporary lives.
For instance, it is important to understand how politicians sought to gain popular support by blaming minorities such as Jewish people for all the ills Germany experienced after the first world war. Relentless anti-Jewish propaganda was used to indoctrinate the general population.
It is for this reason that literature can be a meaningful additional teaching tool, not only in schools but also for everybody interested in the events leading up to the Holocaust. Literature can broaden horizons and deepen knowledge. It can offer different perspectives, often in the same narrative; it teaches us empathy but it can also help us to acquire facts and additional knowledge.
However, the sheer number of books on the Holocaust – survivor accounts, biographies, novels, factual books – can be overwhelming.
Sometimes, bestselling books on the Holocaust, such as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006) or Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), lack the factually correct underpinning that is necessary to make them a good way to learn about the history. It is consequently vital to find books that meaningfully introduce their readers to the topic and that provide carefully researched historical context.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
One example is Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) which is based on Kerr’s own childhood experience. It is the story of 9-year-old Jewish girl Anna who has a happy childhood in Germany until the day her father, wanted by the Nazis, has to leave the country.
Anna’s subsequent narrative outlines the repressions affecting Jewish life on a daily basis. She encounters public events such as the staged book burnings and the daily propaganda that perpetuated falsehoods about Jews. As such, it is an excellent – though hard-hitting – way to introduce a younger readership to the prejudices and reprisals Jews were increasingly subjected to in Nazi Germany.
The Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) is probably the one Holocaust book most people have heard of. It charts the two years Anne and her family spent in hiding in Amsterdam.
The book is often praised for its positive and hopeful message. It is, however, vital that even young readers are made aware of the fact that the Franks were eventually discovered by the Nazis, deported to Auschwitz and from there to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne tragically died in early 1945.
Survivor accounts are generally the best way to learn about the Holocaust. Older teenagers could read Elie Wiesel’s outstanding Night (1958). It describes, in a dispassionate voice, Wiesel’s experiences of being deported from his home town of Sighet in what is now Romania, first to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald.
Wiesel lost his father, mother and youngest sister in the Holocaust and dedicated his life to Holocaust education. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986. If anybody plans to read just one book on the Holocaust, it should probably be this one.
Some young readers might be reluctant to read such hard-hitting accounts by witnesses and survivors of the Holocaust. They might be persuaded to engage with the topic, though, through Art Spiegelman’s seminal graphic novel Maus.
Spiegelman’s book recounts the story of his father Vladek and mother Anja, who both survived Nazi concentration camps. He uses the imagery of an animal fable by depicting his Jewish characters as mice who are chased by the Nazi cats. While this is potentially a distancing device to soften the impact of his illustrations, it also helps Spiegelman to pass critical comments on the Nazis’ notorious attempts to classify people into strictly segregated groups.
Maus made it back into the bestseller lists in January 2022 when a County School Board in Tennessee controversially banned it from its classrooms and libraries. Censorship is not yet a thing of the past – and it is, maybe, especially the people making decisions about education who ought to read these texts.
Using literature as a tool to augment Holocaust teaching in secondary schools might be a good way to further pupils’ learning and understanding not just of the Holocaust, but of the ideologies, populism and propaganda that lay behind it – and how to identify similar narratives that are, worryingly, on the rise again in the world around them.