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Holocaust Memorial Day: Fiction for children

How do you teach primary school children about the Holocaust? Many years ago, I edited a large non-fiction title about the Holocaust for children aged eight and over, and each page carried an angst-ridden decision. Which photograph captures the truth and yet is appropriate for learning at that age? Which statistics to include? Which real-life stories? How to describe something so evil to children so young?

Recently, children’s authors have stepped up to this daunting task and produced some amazing titles that give context to the genocide, show truths without resorting to horror, and illuminate the very real emotions and scars of Holocaust survivors.

after the war
In the middle of last year, Tom Palmer, known for his books on football and history, published After the War with dyslexia specialist and reluctant reader publisher Barrington Stoke. Based on the true story of the Windemere Boys, it is a heartfelt and engaging piece of fiction that explores the emotions of survivors, whilst still carrying the boyishness and wonder that is a child’s exploration of the world.

Yossi and friends, Mordecai and Leo, arrive on the Calgarth Estate next to Lake Windermere after being liberated from Auschwitz. With the help of a multitude of kind adults, they try to rediscover joy for life and hope for the future. Palmer gently extricates the intricacies of their friendships, whilst also referencing Yossi’s past in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the terrible scars the boys carry with them. Palmer does a superb job of linking moments in the present to memories of an horrific past, be it the innocence of feathers falling from split pillows invoking memories of ash, to a synagogue service bringing up the scars of the Nazi terrors of book burning and desecration. But there is also the boyhood delight in simple present pleasures – a bicycle, a late summer storm, a bowl of tomato soup.  

And it is all written in an age-appropriate way. The emotions run deep whilst the language remains easy and accessible.

A few hundred children who survived the concentration camps were indeed brought to the Lake District after the war to ‘rehabilitate’ their lives, and Palmer uses their real stories to create a novel of his own. This is a phenomenally sensitive telling of events after the war, and the exploration of what it’s like to be a child in a strange country, without family or sometimes language, with a terrible loss and grief lying as an undercurrent to all the new things to which the child is exposed.  

It honours the memories of the survivors, whilst also showing that in the face of inhumanity, there is hope for the future. Friendship, courage, and goodness prevail. You can find teaching resources to go alongside the novel here and my interview with Tom Palmer about After the War here. For age 8+.

saving hanno

Saving Hanno by Miriam Halahmy, illustrations by Karin Littlewood
This gentle, yet occasionally heart-breaking book, is a welcome addition to Holocaust literature, as it is aimed at fairly young children and describes a child’s world disintegrating from their own perspective, with detail and emotion, and yet without resorting to shock tactics or hyperbole. It is also a gripping and pacey read.

Nine-year-old Rudi lives a typical German childhood, enjoying his mother’s cinnamon cookies, his close friendships, and school, until the Nazis start making rules prohibiting many facets of his life. As things become more dangerous, he is given the opportunity to go on the Kindertransport to England with his big sister Lotte, but has to leave his parents behind, and devastatingly, his dog Hanno. Amazingly, his parents arrange for Hanno to be smuggled to London too, but London is very different from what Rudi is used to. He is separated from his sister, and although reunited with Hanno, discovers that in London too, pets are in danger as the war intensifies. Halahmy has addressed this theme before in her book Emergency Zoo, but in the shorter Saving Hanno, Halahmy focuses in on the Kindertransport and the emotions facing a Jewish German boy during the war, and it is all the more effective for it. Halahmy explores Rudi’s loss and grief for his old life, as well as his new life experiences, and the small specific sadnesses and joys that accompany both.

The mix of Rudi’s gratefulness for his new circumstance, and yet uncertainty in the face of new customs, and warfare, are intense and yet delicately written, and entirely age-appropriate. A special book that will teach empathy and allow current readers to understand the devastation of Jewish children’s lives during the war.

An age isn’t specified by the publisher, but I would recommend for age seven plus. There is a glossary and note from the author at the end.

when the world was ours
A fantastic new addition to Holocaust literature for children is the newly published When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler. My review of this book is featured in this month’s Books for Keeps, and you can read it here. The book is for children aged 11+.

With all Holocaust fiction, it’s worth making sure that parents and carers have a conversation around the context of the fiction.

With thanks to Otter-Barry books for the review copy of Saving Hanno, and thanks to Tom Palmer, who kindly let me read an early copy of After the War and voice my opinion.

27 January is #HolocaustMemorialDay, when we remember all those murdered during the Holocaust and more recent genocides. #HMD2021 #LightTheDarkness

Latest Book Review

What We’re Scared Of by Keren David

what we're scared of
For a very long time, I’ve struggled to find representations of Jewish children in children’s literature who aren’t, as one child I work with puts it “all bundled up with the Holocaust.” And of course, Holocaust literature is extremely important, and for Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow I’ll highlight some recent examples. But I work with children in a Jewish school, and although we stock a breadth of titles and I want them to be able to read about any child anywhere, and empathise with their plight, I do, on the odd occasion want to show them that they too exist in children’s literature. A modern British Jewish child.

There have been periphery characters, side entities who occasionally display some kind of Jewishness. In Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari, the main character’s friend is planning her bat mitzvah. But they are few and far between. So, it was with great expectations that I waited for my pre-ordered copy of What We’re Scared Of by Keren David, published last week.

Fourteen-year-old twins Evie and Lottie are far from identical. Evie is outgoing and fun and wants to be a comedienne. Lottie attends a different school – is quieter, studious and a dreamer. And religion doesn’t play a role in who they are. Until their mother takes on a new role hosting a radio breakfast show, and not only professes her Jewish heritage to the world, but takes a stance against anti-Semitism too. Before long, both twins are embroiled in their own battles in their own way.

This is an excellent portrayal of modern anti-Semitism in its different guises, and a gentle description of what it means to be a traditional Jewish family in London (as explained to Lottie by her new friend Hannah), but above all this is a book about navigating friendships and family relationships when young teens are on the verge of finding their own identities and breaking free from their childhoods.

Elegantly written, David manages to make this a gripping page turner for any young teen, whilst also grappling with some intense modern issues and problems – addressing the Charlie Hebdo killings, trolling on social media, conspiracy theories about hidden rulers of the world, and the lazy everyday anti-Semitic tropes of ‘rich’ Jews. And all these deep difficult issues are tied into a well-crafted story of twins – and alternating chapters told from their different points of view. There are boys too, a group of mean girls, and a wonderful Muslim best friend.

Particularly impressive is David’s weaving of Hannah’s life into the twins’ story. Lottie makes friends with Hannah at school, and is interested in finding out more about her modern orthodox Jewish life. To that end, she attends a bat mitzvah with her, goes to synagogue at Purim and learns about the festival, and experiences the beauty of a family Friday night meal – a Shabbat dinner. This is all gently introduced, with a wonderful teen perspective by Hannah (who also struggles with some of the gendered aspects of her religion), and very neatly juxtaposed with the things that can turn scary – the very necessary security outside synagogues and Jewish schools, anti-Semitic leaflets that brainwash, and even the small scuffles of violence that can turn serious.

And towards the end, the twins experience the true story of a Holocaust survivor – true because it is the only part of the book that David hasn’t fictionalised. Mala Tribich’s story is kept intact and unembellished – because survivors’ stories are scary and empowering and astounding and essential in their true form. It brings home the idea that Jewish people can’t be separated from such a people-defining event as the Holocaust, and yet it isn’t the only defining factor. Jewish people have a culture, and a religion, and live modern lives, and thrive, assimilated or not, in modern Britain. And this very life-affirming story speaks to that fully and boldly. I can’t wait to give it to my children, and show them that they can be proud of their identity – after all, now it’s even in a book.

For age 11+. Published by Scholastic.