April is Holocaust Remembrance Month.
Never again. Never forget. That’s what we say. That’s what the survivors say. After several decades of not talking about their living nightmare, of not talking about the loved ones that didn’t survive, survivors began to tell and write their stories. A grieving father, bereft of his wife and daughters, published his teenage daughter’s diary, and Anne Frank became Everychild, the emblem of the millions of children who perished in the Holocaust. A young man, who spent his teenager years at a place which has come to stand for the utmost depravity and cruelty of the Nazis-Auschwitz-wrote a stark and chilling account of his years at the concentration camp.
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Month, I’d like to tell you about the following books:
Levine, Karen. Hana's Suitcase. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Company, 2002.
This book absolutely devastated me.
I've read plenty of nonfiction about the Holocaust-books written for adults as well as books written for children.
None, save the next book I will tell you about, have overwhelmed me as much as Hana's Suitcase.
Over the years, Germany has come to face the painful truth of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is taught in schools and it is a crime to spout neo-Nazi doctrine. Germany is pushing to make denial of the Holocaust a crime across the European countries.
However, Japan has not had the same success in facing its role in World War II. The Holocaust is not as well-known in the country, and denial of the Holocaust is not unknown in the country.
However, that is slowly changing, in part thanks to Fumiko Ishioka, curator of the Tokyo Holocaust Center. The center was home to a very special group of children who called themselves "The Small Wings." The Small Wings club, made of volunteers at the museum, met every month to produce a newsletter informing their peers about the Holocaust.
When Fumiko began her job at the center, she knew that the best way to teach children about the Holocaust was for them to see pictures and artifacts of the Holocaust. She wrote to Holocaust museums around the world, asking them to loan them material for the children's center.
Fumiko received a small suitcase. All she knew, according to what was written on the suitcase, was the child's first name (Hanna, as the Germans spelled it) and that she was an orphan.
Naturally, the children wanted to know more about Hanna/Hana. How old was she? What happened to her? Did she survive?
Through alternating chapters, we learn about Hana's life before the Holocaust and at the Terezin/Theresienstadt concentration camp and Fumiko's quest to find more about Hana.
Hana is the little girl pictured on the cover-a sweet, beautiful child. The photographs of her and family juxtaposed against the adorable 21st century Japanese children are absolutely heartbreaking.
The last chapters are painful yet joyous at the same time. The reader is reminded that although pain and grief change over time, they never truly go away, never to return.
Roy, Jennifer. Yellow Star. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2006.
When Yellow Star was published, many thought it was a Newbery contender. Although it ultimately did not win the Newbery (or even an Honor citation), it is definitely one of the most intense and brilliantly written children's novels I have read in recent years.
Yellow Star is told in verse. I am not a huge fan of verse. I feel that this particular writing style has been abused and overblown in recent years.
It takes an extremely skilled author to write a novel in verse. The style becomes annoying and distracting in the hands of an inept author. Karen Hesse's Witness is one of the few that work, in my opinion.
Read Yellow Star and you will understand how emotionally powerful a verse novel can be.
I am also not a huge fan of novels about the Holocaust. It's very difficult for me to explain it, but Holocaust novels (again, in my opinion only) run the risk of trivializing the Holocaust. I avoid them whenever possible, save for a select few:
Number the Stars (which I read because it won the Newbery)
The Devil in Vienna (which I read because Disney made a movie based on the book for The Disney Channel, under the title A Friendship in Vienna)
Daniel Half-Human and the Good Nazi (a harrowing young adult novel)
Based on these two prejudices of mine, I avoided reading Yellow Star. How foolish of me. Had I investigated further, I would have learned that the book is the true story of Jennifer Roy's Aunt Syvia (now called Sylvia).
Syvia lived in the Lodz (Poland) Jewish ghetto, which held 270,000 people.
800 survived the war.
12 were children.
Syvia was one of the 12.
This book took my breath away. I am not exaggerating. There were times I literally had to put the book down and do something else.
That happened after I read the "Give us the children" section:
Give us the children,
the Nazis say.
We will take them to a place
where they will have food and fresh air.
Parents, how lucky you are!
the Nazis say.
You won't have to worry about your children
while you are work.
They will be cared for by us.
Later, the Nazis come for the children. Syvia and the 12 children were hidden in the ghetto.
Yellow Star is Syvia's story.
Other books of note:
Rubin, Susan Goldman. The Cat With the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin. New York: Holiday House, 2006.
In recent years, much attention has been given to Brundibar, the children’s opera that was performed by the children imprisoned at the Terezin/Theresienstadt concentration camp. Tony Kushner, playwright of the Angels in America plays, and Maurice Sendak collaborated on a retelling of the opera in picture book form. Opera companies in many nations have performed the opera, which has subtle political overtones that were not obvious to the Nazis.
Ela Weissberger was one of the children who performed in Brundibar. She was only eleven years old when she, as a Czech Jew, was sent to Terezin/Theresienstadt. The Cat With the Yellow Star tells of her life before the Holocaust, the friends she made (and lost) at the concentration camp, and her life as a Holocaust survivor, bringing the story of Brundibar and the Holocaust to children in many countries.
Rubin, Susan Goldman. Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin. New York: Holiday House, 2000.
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was an art teacher who worked with the children of Terezin/Theresienstadt. Throughout the book, we see examples of the children’s artwork. The children’s artwork alternated between hopeful/peaceful artwork and the evil, grim reality of the concentration camp. This book goes into significant more detail about the evils of the camp more so than The Cat With the Yellow Star.
Mochizuki, Ken. Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story. New York: Lee & Low Books, 1997.
Many people have heard of Oscar Schindler, but not many people know about the heroism of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania. Through the eyes of his son, Hiroki Sugihara, we learn how this brave man defied the Japanese government and issued thousands of visas, thereby saving untold numbers of lives.
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow
Hitler Youth chronicles the experience of young German boys and girls who voluntarily joined or were forced in the Hitler Youth corps.
The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definite Edition
When Otto Frank first published his daughter's diary, he edited passages that, among other things, dealt with her anger with her mother. Those and other entries have been restored.
Alicia: My Story
I first read Alicia Appleman-Jurman's autobiography when I was in middle school. Her survival story is one of the most enduring stories of the Holocaust.