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Beyond Oral History: What Makes a Good Holocaust Book?

There continues to be a flood of books for young people about the Holocaust, even more now than a generation ago. This is partly because many survivors who for so long did not want to talk about their horrifying personal histories are now breaking their silence. Every time I get a new one to review, I start off thinking, “Not another Holocaust book!” — only to be astonished very often by a gripping story that brings new meaning to what I thought I already knew.

The essential questions always come up: Can there be art about genocide? Do you give Holocaust books to children? How do these books tell the truth? It is amazing that art could come from such unimaginable atrocity, that writers have found so many different forms — fiction, memoir, poetry, history, even comic strip — to bear witness. These authors have found a form to give voice to the unspeakable.

But not everything that is published about the Holocaust is worth reading, even if it’s about what really happened. Not every survivor is a writer. Authenticity is not enough — you need a writer to make it a story. Unedited oral histories are just raw  material. Just as bad are the books that sensationalize the violence. Or there’s the opposite: books that patch on the slick  comfort that suffering is redemptive and life is beautiful.

But a surprising number of Holocaust accounts are great art. And they keep coming. (One reason for the continuing high interest may be that the study of the Holocaust is now a required part of the curriculum in an increasing number of states across the country.) Looking critically at particular titles, fiction and nonfiction, helps me discover the elementals of what makes a good book.

frank_diary of a young girlNo discussion of the Holocaust can leave out Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Since it was first published in 1947, it has sold more than twenty-five million copies in fifty languages. In a deliberately provocative article in the October 6, 1997, New Yorker, Cynthia Ozick says we should ban the Diary, burn it. She is right that the syrupy message, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” has been trumpeted across the world as a call for redemption and hope, whereas Frank’s death and the genocide of millions deny that message. And yet I don’t believe you deprive kids of a book with such power to move them. Ian Buruma responds in a brilliant article in the February 19, 1998, New York Review of Books. He agrees with Ozick that we don’t want what he calls “vacuous universalism,” but he insists that Anne Frank’s diary, sold as a message of redemption, was actually something much better than that. “What lifts the diary above the level of a mere witness account is the author’s capacity to grapple with problems to which there are no easy answers.”

What we have to do is recommend other good books with the Diary. One book cannot do it all. And if it tries to, it won’t work.

lobel_no pretty picturesOne of the very best Holocaust memoirs is Anita Lobel’s No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War (Greenwillow, 1998). Lobel remembers how it was for her as a child caught up in the horror, from the roundups and deportations to the death camps.  Honest about her distance from her cold parents, in contrast to her loving bond with the Gentile nanny who raised and nurtured her, Lobel is matter-of-fact about how in the Auschwitz selections she pulled her little brother from the line that went to the crematoria. With the same quiet truth, she remembers her childhood shame at being an “ugly obvious Jew girl.” Looking back, she avoids sermonizing and analysis.

spiegelman_mausIn the 1986 memoir Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and its brilliant sequel, Maus II, Art Spiegelman uses the comic-strip form to  show himself being told about the Holocaust by his Polish survivor father. Far from offering comfort and a sweet message, the autobiography explores the guilt, love, and anger between father and son as well as the concentration camp experience.

wiesel_nightLike Maus, there are many valuable Holocaust books published for adults (two more classics are Elie Wiesel’s Night [1960] and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved [1988]) that have wide YA appeal. But what about Holocaust accounts for really young readers? Facts of atrocity and genocide are hardly appropriate for small kids. As with slavery and the  Underground Railroad, it is easier for authors to tell young children about those who escaped — the survivors and the rescuers. One of the best Holocaust picture books is Shulamith Oppenheim’s The Lily Cupboard (HarperCollins, 1992), illustrated by Ronald Himler, about a child in 1940 Holland who must leave her parents to hide with a Gentile family on their farm. Oppenheim weaves the details of everyday life into a powerful story as Himler’s rich watercolor-and-gouache paintings set the peace of the countryside and family warmth against the anguish of separation. In marked contrast, another picture book aimed at preschoolers, Let the Celebrations Begin! (Orchard, 1991) by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Julie Vivas, offers false comfort. In these pictures Belsen after liberation is a playful summer camp with bunk beds, laughter, and leapfrog games in the sun. But in fact, the liberators found (and photographed) mounds of unburied tangled bodies. Belsen was an extermination camp. The book’s happy ending is a lie.

Many good books show that there were people who retained their humanity, who sacrificed for others, even in the darkest times. But the Holocaust changed the way we think about our capacity for evil. It wasn’t just an interruption easily wiped out by the goodness of the human heart.

The best Holocaust accounts make young readers think about their own lives. The question, “What would I have done?” is central. As a Jew who grew up in apartheid South Africa, an awareness of Holocaust history has always been part of my identity. I’ve read about it since childhood. But I think it’s important to connect that history with other accounts of what racism can do, in the past and in the present — from the genocide of many Indian nations to slavery to apartheid to ethnic cleansing. Extreme as the Nazi genocide was, it was not a thing apart; it was human experience. Camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim said it was what ordinary people did to ordinary people.

Of course there is the danger of comparing every incident of racism or schoolyard bullying with genocide. But the Holocaust was not unique. Millions of non-Jews in Europe died at the hands of the Nazis, including Romani, homosexuals, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political prisoners. And mass persecution did not begin or end with the Nazis. The good Holocaust books bring readers up close and make them confront the moral choices and the connections, then and now.

bagdasarian_forgotten fireBased on a true story, Adam Bagdasarian’s historical novel Forgotten Fire (DK Ink, 2000) tells about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in 1915 through the experience of a child, twelve years old when his comfortable family home is torn apart. The first-person narrative is quiet, without sensationalism, but the stark horror of the massacre is there, told with a haunting rhythmic voice that’s like a drumbeat.

jansen_over a thousand hillsTranslated from the German, an important new book about recent genocide is Hanna Jansen’s Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You (Carolrhoda, 2006). At the age of eight, Jeanne was the only one of her family to survive the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A German family adopted her, and now her adoptive mother tells Jeanne’s story in a compelling, barely fictionalized biography that stays true to the traumatized child’s bewildered viewpoint. With the elemental non-message-y account of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, there is a haunting connection for readers to talk about: “And the world looked on. Or looked away.”

bartoletti_hitler youthThere are many Holocaust accounts of victims, survivors, and bystanders; Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow (Houghton, 2005) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti tells Holocaust history mainly from the viewpoint of the perpetrators, showing how Hitler relied heavily on a segment of the population that was too young to vote. It’s the personal stories that make the narrative so gripping, and it is those specifics that always raise the universal question, Could it happen again?

glatshteyn_emil and karlYankev Glatshteyn’s Emil and Karl (Porter/Roaring Brook) “is among the very first books written about the Holocaust for readers of any age and in any language,” according to Jeffrey Shandler, who translated the book from Yiddish for the first time in 2006. And the novel, written for children, originally published in New York in 1940, is much more than a dutiful read. It will bring today’s readers very close to what it was like to be a child under Nazi occupation. The story is told in the third  person from the alternating viewpoints of Emil, who is Jewish, and Karl, who is not. The boys find kindness and shelter with a neighbor, with a brave member of the underground, and even with a police supervisor; but they also find betrayal and vicious cruelty. Stark and immediate, the story reads like an adventure, but the harsh reality is always there. Hovering in the background is a stunned child’s question about the perpetrators: “What makes them do it?” That elemental issue is our focus even now.

Accounts of the Holocaust must disturb. There is no happy ending. But the best books don’t exploit the violence. Neither sensational nor sentimental, they tell the truth.

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Hazel Rochman

Hazel Rochman is a contributing editor at Booklist, where she has worked for twenty years, and is the author of the award-winning Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World (1993). Much of her article is drawn from her contributions to Booklist and Book Links.

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