Any historical literature needs to be evaluated both as history and as literature. A book cannot be fully recommended unless it is good history as well as good literature, especially if it is intended for young readers.
Being historically accurate is not the only test of good history, which lies as much in what is left out as in what is included. Young people generally do not have a great knowledge of history, so that what they know about a period or an event is often limited to what they learn in the specific book they are reading. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Holocaust literature, and nowhere is it more difficult to find a work of literature that can come close to conveying the enormous scope and magnitude of this event.
Without doubt, the most widely read work in Holocaust literature, at least by young people, is Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Looking at this book as literature, few could doubt the book's value. Looking closely at the book from a historical perspective, however, one finds that there is relatively little history here. It is essentially the story of an adolescent girl trying to deal with all the normal trials of growing up under extremely abnormal conditions, but it includes little information about those conditions from a historical point of view. The reader knows from early entries that the family is Jewish, originally came from Germany, and emigrated to Holland to escape the German persecution of the Jews. When Germany invaded Holland, the family was forced into hiding. Occasionally Anne reports on events she heard on the radio or events that were reported by those who were helping them, but basically her diary is about her personal struggles: living in hiding in cramped quarters with little or no privacy, sharing these quarters with strangers as well as other family members, and above all, the turmoil of the adolescent feelings growing within her. As Lawrence Langer says of this book in his monumental work, The Age of Atrocity, "It circumspectly skirts the horror implicit in the theme, but leaves the reader with the mournful if psychologically unburdened feeling that he has had a genuine encounter with inappropriate death."1
This failure to confront the full horror of the Holocaust or examine the historical facts of the period occurs in Anne's diary because it is a diary, a personal record. Anne is writing about what she knows, which is the impact of events on her own life, not the events themselves. Much Holocaust literature for young people, both autobiographical and fictional, is written from a child's point of view. These children neither knew nor understood what was going on around them; they knew only what was happening to their own lives. Unless readers bring with them some historical knowledge of the events surrounding these children, they know no more than the characters in the book; they have no historical context into which to place what they have read.
Teachers who recommend or assign the diary or other accounts told from a child's perspective, like Johanna Reiss's autobiography, The Upstairs Room, or Judith Kerr's autobiographical novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, should do so only after some basic Holocaust history has been taught. For English teachers, here is an extraordinary opportunity to plan an interdisciplinary curriculum with a social studies teacher. Social studies teachers, of course, could use the diary in conjunction with a Holocaust curriculum. In either case, some discussion of the Holocaust should take place before students start reading the diary. Students should begin their reading with at least a general knowledge of what the Holocaust was and should understand what was happening in Germany at the time the Franks fled. The history lessons should keep pace with the book, so that by the time students have finished the diary, they are aware of the forced evacuations of Jews and the existence of extermination and death camps. The diary becomes Holocaust literature only when readers are able to put it into historical perspective with knowledge that they have brought to the book. For better and/or more interested readers who wish to know more about both Anne Frank and the historical period, Miep Gies's Anne Frank Remembered provides excellent supplemental reading. Gies, one of those who helped the Frank family survive in hiding, adds to the diary the essential story of what was happening in the outside world while the family was in hiding.
A novel that has achieved great popularity in recent years with teachers of younger students (grades 5 up) is Lois Lowry's Number the Stars. The fact that the American Library Association chose this as the recipient of its Newbery Award, given to the best children's book of the year, establishes its literary quality. Historically, it is also valid. It deals with the rescue of the Danish Jews, as does another excellent novel, Lisa's War by Carol Matas. In Matas's novel, some of the members of the Resistance are Jewish-an important element because so much Holocaust history and literature portrays the Jews as victims. The rescue of the Danish Jews is one of the most remarkable events in the history of the Holocaust, and one that should be part of any Holocaust curriculum. In view of the overwhelming statistics regarding the loss of human life in the Holocaust, and particularly the number of Jews exterminated, the fact that 98.5 percent of the Danish Jews survived is a remarkable statistic. As Harold Flender says in Rescue in Denmark, to be able to fully answer the question "Why the Danes?" would be "to solve the problem of man's inhumanity to man. . . . More important, we should be able to establish a formula for humanity."2
It should be borne in mind that, if stories of rescue and resistance are all children know about the Holocaust, they will have an extremely distorted view of history. Essentially, the Holocaust is not about courage and heroism, but about persecution and extermination. To allow children a rosier view is to do them, and history, a disservice. A Holocaust curriculum should neither begin nor end with stories of rescue and resistance; they should be seen in perspective, as a few candles lit amidst the darkness of this part of history.
It is important, however, that some discussion of rescue and resistance be included in a Holocaust curriculum. In the first place, children always ask, "Why didn't they fight back?" "Why didn't somebody help them?" They need to know that there were those who resisted and those who rescued; they also need to know how difficult it was and how great the risks were. A more imperative reason, however, is that young people can quickly become overwhelmed by the brutality and inhumanity implicit in the study of the Holocaust. The story of the Danes can alleviate a little of the horror, can leave room for hope. In his book Crossing: A Journal of Survival and Resistance in World War II, Jan Yoors sits in a Nazi prison and recalls a Gypsy fairy tale told to him by a five-year-old girl. In this story, a frog fell into a bucket of milk; being "reasonable and well-adjusted to reality," she immediately realized the impossibility of her situation and "accepting the inevitable, she promptly drowned."3 The next day, another frog fell into a similar bucket. However, this frog was "totally unreasonable, impulsive, and unrealistic. She jumped and jumped and never gave up jumping until the following day at dawn"; by then, she had churned the milk into butter and was able to climb out (159-160). Books like Number the Stars and Lisa's War can help give young people the vision of the second frog, but it is important that they be used in the context of history.
One appropriate place to introduce the resistance into a Holocaust curriculum would be with the study of the Warsaw Ghetto, in particular, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This could then lead to a discussion of other resistance movements, including the one in Denmark. In discussing the resistance, mention could also be made of the White Rose movement, and the fact that there was resistance even within Germany itself. Most novels of resistance written for young people, especially older books, like Marie McSwigan's classic, Snow Treasure, are little more than adventure stories, describing events in terms that romanticize war and distort history. One that can be recommended is James Forman's Ceremony of Innocence, a fictional account of Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement. A recent novel that is far superior to the traditional resistance story is Uri Orlev's The Man from the Other Side, a story set in the Warsaw Ghetto and based on real events and real people. The best work on the Jewish resistance is probably the biography In Kindling Flame: The Story of Hannah Senesh, 1921-1944. The amount of time devoted to the study of resistance and rescue, however, should not be out of proportion to its place in Holocaust history.
One of the few books that can meet the criteria in both history and literature is Elie Wiesel's Night. Even readers who turned to this book with no prior knowledge of Holocaust history would understand a great deal about the event when they finished it. Here there is no glossing over the horrors, no failure to confront "inappropriate death." But it is also a story of survival, which keeps the reader from being overwhelmed by the horror and left without hope. As the tale of the two frogs demonstrates, we must never leave young people without hope. Night is also an important work for young people who may have been overwhelmed by the scope of the horrors of the Holocaust. Statistics can numb the sensibilities; six million dead is a statistic that the mind cannot comprehend in human terms. Reading Wiesel's book turns the six million from a statistic into a personal experience that can be multiplied by six million, or as Andre Schwarz-Bart expresses it in his novel, The Last of the Just, the story of one individual "dead six million times" (422).4 Although this is a book that can stand alone, both as history and literature, it is strongly recommended that it be assigned toward the end of a Holocaust curriculum, simply because it takes all the overwhelming statistics and translates them back into human terms. The study of the Holocaust is, or should be, a search for humanity through the study of inhumanity; no one has contributed more to that search than Elie Wiesel.
It must be kept in mind that no individual book, not even Night, can truly convey the full story of the Holocaust. Every survivor has a story, each one unique. Beyond them, there are the six million who did not survive, whose stories can never be fully told. There are thousands of books about the Holocaust-personal accounts, general historical overviews, histories of specific events or with specific themes or perspectives. Each represents only a piece of the whole picture. Reading ten books about the Holocaust gives the reader a bigger piece of that picture; reading a hundred, an even bigger piece. The picture, however, is never completed; each additional book only makes the reader aware of how much of the picture still has not been seen. What teachers can do is try to present as balanced a piece of the picture as possible, conveying the facts, demonstrating the scope and magnitude of the event, and not losing sight of the human aspect. This is where the role of literature comes in. History records the events and compiles the statistics; literature translates the events and statistics into real things happening to real people. Each without the other is inadequate; together, they provide a window into the truth. n
1Lawrence L. Langer, The Age of Atrocity: Death in Modern Literature (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978).
2 Harold Flender, Rescue in Denmark (New York: Manor Books, Inc., 1964).
3 Jan Yoors, Crossing: A Journal of Survival and Resistance in World War II (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971).
4 Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just (New York: Bantam Books, 1960).ReferencesAtkinson, Linda. In Kindling Flame: The Story of Hannah Senesh, 1921-1944. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 198
5.Forman, James. Ceremony of Innocence. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.Frank, Anne. Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Doubleday, 1952.Gies, Miep. Anne Frank Remembered. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.Kerr, Judith. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1971.Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.Matas, Carol. Lisa's War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987.McSwigan, Marie. Snow Treasure. New York: Dutton, 1942.Orlev, Uri. The Man from the Other Side. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.Reiss, Johanna. The Upstairs Room. New York: Crowell, 1972.Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill & Wang, 1960.
Margaret A. Drew is a librarian in the Brookline, Massachusetts public schools. She has studied Holocaust literature for almost twenty years, and has worked with the Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.