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The READ: How Should We Teach Children About the Holocaust?

When you have children, it’s hard to do much of anything without them being aware of it. And so it hasn’t been lost on my children that for much of the past few years—for most of their lives, in fact—I’ve been working on a book. At first, this manifested mostly in negative ways: Mommy’s writing, so the door is closed, the babysitter is here, interruptions will be tolerated grouchily. As they’ve gotten older and more inquisitive, they’ve taken some interest in the process: there was a brief book-making obsession, when a favorite activity was creating pages of artwork and text to be stapled together. And when a big box of copies arrived at the door a few weeks ago, they were overjoyed to see my name on the cover—of a real book!—and to read the page of acknowledgments where their names appear.

But they have no idea what my book is actually about; and I have no idea how to explain it to them. By now, I’ve become practiced at boiling down the main theme to what a friend calls an “elevator pitch”: it’s about the tension between memory and imagination in works of Holocaust literature by writers such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, W.G. Sebald, and various others. Needless to say, such a description doesn’t work for a seven-year-old and five-year-old, who haven’t the slightest interest in the moral or aesthetic questions underlying the representation of horror. But what, I have often wondered, ought they to be told about the Holocaust at their age? Is there any way to give them some kind of explanation—however basic—or is the entire subject better left alone for a few more years?

My own book is in part about having faith in the ability of books to help answer difficult questions, so books seemed like a natural place to start. Typing “children’s Holocaust books” on Amazon turns up a surprising assortment. Most are intended for older kids, but the “ages 4-8” category yielded a few possibilities. I had high hopes for The Butterfly, written and illustrated by the prolific and respected Patricia Polacco. This picture book, with beautiful watercolor images, tells the story of Monique, a girl growing up in a village outside Paris. One night she wakes up to find a “ghost child” sitting on her bed, another girl her age, who runs away when Monique speaks to her. Eventually she discovers that the “ghost” is a Jewish girl named Sevrine whom her mother is hiding, together with her parents, in the cellar. One night while the girls are looking out the window together, a neighbor catches a glimpse of them. The Jewish family must be hustled out in the dead of night to find a new hiding place.

An author’s note explains that the story is based on the experiences of the author’s aunt, whose mother was part of the French Resistance. Nonetheless, certain moments in the plot jarred my sensibilities. For instance, after Sevrine is discovered, Monique’s mother leads the girls on a long walk through the night to a “rendezvous” with people who will take Sevrine to her next refuge. When they say good-bye, Monique gives Sevrine her beloved cat to take along. But how could a Jewish child in hiding—who had to always stay quiet, with never enough to eat—keep a pet, a noisy creature with another mouth to feed? Perhaps the author intended the gift of the cat as a symbolic gesture, not unlike the butterflies that appear at the end of the story as a miraculous sign that Sevrine and her parents have made it to safety. Still, I was left with the queasy feeling of misrepresentation. If the primary purpose of reading a child a book about the Holocaust is to teach something about the historical circumstances, it seems counterproductive to suggest that it was a normal thing for a child in hiding to have a pet, just like us.

This realization made me uncomfortable: one of the main points of my book, an argument that I’ve made in various pieces for this magazine over the years, is that we can’t demand that fiction be always faithful to historical fact, because literature—great literature, anyway—has its own purposes. But the situation is different when it comes to children’s literature, because children, unlike adults, are essentially reading in a vacuum. Their experience of a book can’t depend on prior knowledge or cultural context the way fiction for adults does. An author who writes an adult novel about the Holocaust has the luxury of leaving the basics unexplained or unsaid. Not so for a children’s author, whose task is nearly impossible: to tell a story about the Holocaust that manages to be at once true to life yet not irredeemably terrifying, offering enough context to make things clear without getting bogged down in details (as The Butterfly also sometimes does). The story must be self-contained, perfectly understandable within the boundaries of the book itself. It shouldn’t raise more questions than it answers, as in another passage in The Butterfly  in which Monique glimpses a girl wearing a yellow star get herded onto a train and worries for a moment that it’s Sevrine. I did not want to have to tell my children where Sevrine might be headed on such a train—the terror of living in hiding seemed more than sufficient.

More successful is The Cats in Krasinski Square, narrated by a girl who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and now lives in hiding on the Aryan side of the city with her sister. “I wear my Polish look, I walk my Polish walk,” she says, “and I am almost safe, almost invisible.” Her sister, also a Resistance fighter, has organized a group of students to smuggle food into the Ghetto in their satchels. But on the day the plan is to be carried out, a friend warns them that the Gestapo have been alerted. So the students gather up stray cats into baskets and release them in the train station, causing pandemonium and allowing the food to be smuggled in safely. The author, Karen Hesse, writes that she was inspired by a newspaper account about “cats outfoxing the Gestapo at the train station in Warsaw,” though the other elements of the fable seem to have been invented. Whether it is literally true or not, however, The Cats in Krasinski Square, like all successful fiction, has the ring of truth. Perhaps it didn’t happen, but it’s not impossible to imagine that it might have. And it manages to be uplifting—the students complete their mission successfully—while remaining true to the grimmer realities of daily life in wartime Warsaw.

But in the end, I chose not to share either of these books with my children. They are simply too disturbing. A story in which a young girl is separated from her parents and sent to an unknown destination, or another little girl comments casually that her older sister is “all that is left of our family,” is obviously unsuitable bedtime reading for little kids with active imaginations and a fear of the dark. After all, these books render impossible the time-honored line that weary parents use to console scared children: “It’s not real.” In a few years, I might introduce them to Number the Stars, a moving novel about two ten-year-old Danish girls by the wonderful writer Lois Lowry, or to the diary of Anne Frank, which I remember reading myself in third or fourth grade. Meanwhile, in response to my son’s persistent interrogations, I explained that my book was about bad things that happened during a war a long time ago. For him, for now, that seems to be enough.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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