StudyBoss » Holocaust » Children’s Literature and the Holocaust

Children’s Literature and the Holocaust

During the 1940’s Jewish Europeans experienced an unthinkable and atrocious collective trauma. In her work “Survivor-Parents and Their Children” taken from the anthology Generations of the Holocaust, Judith S. Kestenberg has argued that regardless of location, the effects of the Holocaust are felt on survivors parenting. The children of survivors receive a secondary traumatic impact by being forced to deal with the impact the Holocaust had directly on their parents.

The novel Briar Rose by Jane Yolen is an example of a Holocaust survivor sharing her experiences through a fictionalized tale made for young adults. Some may believe that a traditional, educationally focused history source or a first hand account from a survivor is the best way to inform children about the Holocaust. It has been discovered through research of survivors and their families that first hand accounts passed down from parent to child are traumatizing. However, history books are ineffective because people are turned into statistics, thereby trivializing the terror of the Holocaust.

This essay argues that a fictional style of storytelling or literature is the best way to inform children and adolescents about the Holocaust. Witnessing is important, however, there is no educational value in traumatizing children; it is better to use literature that explains the Holocaust at a level children and young adults can handle. Milton Meltzer, author of Never forget: The Jews of the Holocaust discusses the importance of witnessing: “To forget what we know would not be human. To remember (it) is to think of what being human means.

Indifference is the greatest sin. . . . It can be as powerful as an action. Not to do something against evil is to participate in the evil” (Sherman 173). Meltzer gives the straightforward conclusion that people must be educated about the Holocaust because to remain silent about it is just as bad as playing a role in persecuting Jews. This conclusion also gives the rationale for teaching children about the Holocaust. But more specifically, why else may witnessing be important and what are the drawbacks of witnessing?

Despite the logic and seemingly usefulness of witnessing, it can be a traumatic experience for the witness. The trauma experienced through first hand accounts can be further explained through the use of Marianne Hirsch’s article “Projected Memory: Holocaust photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy,” which discusses ways people can perceive traumatic information of the past. People can either have “the ability to say it could have been me, it was me, also’ and at the same time that it was not me'” or the line between the witness and the listener can be blurred and the historical trauma interiorized.

Hirsch identifies a negative identification with trauma as idiopathic or “self-sameness” (408). An over-identification with trauma causes the witness to act out and become a victim. As Hirsch writes, “Acting out is based on tragic identification and the continuation of one’s self as a surrogate victim. It is based on over identification and repetition. Keeping the wounds open, it results in retraumatization” (414). It is because of these reasons that painful histories must be carefully passed on with the witness’s welfare in mind.

Anyone who hears a first hand account about the Holocaust may experience trauma. According to Judith S. Kestenberg, author of “Survivor-Parents and Their Children,” first hand witnessing of the Holocaust has long-term traumatic effects that are passed down through generation. As shown through out the studies and cases discussed in the anthology Generations of The Holocaust, the “psychological task” children of survivors have to face is dealing with the trauma handed down from their parents as a result of their experiences with the Holocaust.

Children of survivors are traumatized because “survivor-parents introduce into their parenthood the usual identification and counter identifications not only with their own living or deceased parents and siblings, but also with various people-some well known to them, some anonymous-who were part of their persecution experience” (Kestenberg 96). The knowledge of their parents trauma causes the child to over-identify with their parents. But not only children of survivors are traumatized by information of the Holocaust.

Even gentiles maybe traumatized by hearing first hand accounts from Holocaust survivors. “The Holocaust In Fiction; Naming The Unnamable; Morality In Literature” describes how author Joyce Hackett was negatively affected by the year she spent researching about the Holocaust: “In the months she spent conducting interviews with survivors of Theresienstadt- -a Nazi camp… Hackett found herself casually buying rope with which to fashion her own noose, and idly wondering whether it would hurt to drop a blow-dryer in my bath water'” (B6).

Hackett had an idiopathic reaction to witnessing. She over-identified with the survivors she interviewed and showed evidence of acting out, the interviews with survivors sparked her preoccupation with suicide. Since it has been shown that first hand witnessing causes trauma to children and also carries the risk of traumatizing more remote witnesses, history books may be seen as the next alternative to informing children of the Holocaust. However, history books are ineffective in teaching children about the Holocaust.

The article “Historian’s WWII Book Sanitizes History for Youth” discusses a history book that fails to convey more than mundane facts. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote a book or “an introduction to the war for young readers” (Eskenazi 1). “The book fails resoundingly. Instead it presents a prettified version of the war and the role of the United States: Ambrose does mention such figures as 4,600 U. S. military personnel killed at Pearl Harbor, 85,000 Japanese incinerated at Hiroshima, and 11 million dead via Hitler’s Final Solution, including 6 million Jews” (Eskanzi 1).

The facts in the history books are ineffective. Whereas witnessing causes a problem of over identification, history books cause the problem of too little identification. The information the reader of a history book receives is not enough to create a significant impact or understanding. Because of this, no heteropathic identification is formed. The reader has no emotional connection with the work and the reader child gains nothing from reading the book. After eliminating the use of first hand witnessing and history books, the next alternative for teaching children about the Holocaust is through fictional literature.

Some have declared writing fiction about the Holocaust is impossible and immoral: “The arguments about the immorality of creating fiction about the Holocaust are related to concerns about exploiting the victims and survivors, as well as the fear of being cooped by the act of describing evil. There are concerns that imaginative works about the Holocaust, as opposed to factual texts such as autobiographies or histories, will somehow subvert the truth of what actually happened” (Walter 40).

However, unlike first hand witnessing and history books, novels are the best way to relay information about something as complex as the Holocaust. As discussed in “Juvenile Picture Books About the Holocaust: Extending the Definitions of Children’s Literature” Jeffrey Derevensky, professor of educational psychology, has a theory about the stages of childhood development and Holocaust literature: “At the concrete operational stage, from ages seven to eleven, children can begin to comprehend the objective events of the Holocaust.

They will be unable to understand the broader philosophical and psychological issues until they reach the stage of formal operation and thought, at approximately age eleven” (Walter 41). Derevensky has concluded through his studies that children and adolescents do have special and different needs. Considering these factors he has determined that starting from the age of seven, children may be introduced to the Holocaust. The child at that age will not be ready for all the information but as her or she ages more information may be introduced.

The novel Briar Rose by Jane Yolen is an example of literature made for young adults that deals with the Holocaust. Within the story itself, the reader is confronted with the controversy of what children can handle hearing about the Holocaust. How much should children be told? And how should they be told? In Briar Rose, Gemma uses a fairy tale to explain her experiences to her grandchildren. As discussed in the book Generations of the Holocaust parent survivors traumatize their children because of their experiences with the Holocaust.

The novel succeeded in the ways that first hand witnessing and history books failed; the novel was not traumatic and the reader formed an emotional connection with the characters in the book adding to the understanding of real events. In Briar Rose, a family discovers only after the death of the matriarch that she was a Holocaust survivor. Gemma, mother of one and grandmother of three, hinted but never told her family members of her involvement with the Holocaust. Her family always assumed she immigrated to the United States before World War II.

What she did tell them was the story of Briar Rose, in which she used a fairy tale of a sleeping beauty named Aurora to elude to her experiences under Nazi occupation. In her story the bad fairy was described as “the one in black with big black boots and silver eagles on her hat” (Yolen 27). The spell cast by the bad fairy is described as a mist that covered the entire kingdom: “Everyone in it- the good people an d the not-so-good, the young people and the not-so-young, and even Briar Rose’s mother and father fell asleep. Everyone slept.

So fast asleep they were not able to wake up for a hundred years” (Yolen 46). Using the ideas of M. P. Machet, author of “Authenticity in Holocaust Literature for Children” one can analyze Briar Rose. The article discusses the way that Jewish people are represented in children’s books. This author agrees that books are a good way to teach children about the Holocaust. Machet says: “Novels can help children become aware of the Holocaust by conveying some of the complexity of the historical situation and also by personifying the events through fictional characters with who children can identify” (Machet 1).

Yolen’s novel succeeds in teaching about the Holocaust while at the same time using characters the reader may identifies with. In Briar Rose Gemma tells her story using the fairy tale because she feels that her daughter and grandchildren will be able to comprehend the fairy tale. Gemma uses a princess to be the fictional character that her witnesses are to identify with. Although the listener is not royalty, a princess is something children (especially little girls) can identify with. However, this identification only happens when the child is very young.

Eventually as the child grows and matures, this identification will not be sufficient. Looking at the novel itself which teaches about the Holocaust, the fictional characters are family members that have to deal with the loss of an important member of the family. Gemma, the Holocaust survivor is given more than just a face, the reader of the novel forms a connection with the character as more of her secret past is disclosed. Since learning first hand witnessing causes trauma to the witness and that history books lack significant impact, children should be taught about the Holocaust through literature.

The more our young know about why the Holocaust happened, and how it took place, the more they, as our future adults will be prepared to deal with the trends in society that endanger our humanity” As the plot progresses more information is divulged, with age and time more and more can be taught. Well written literature about the Holocaust can provide children elements of the issue that parents and history books cannot give. Not only can it cover a variety of complex issues at a level young adults can relate to, the characters, although emotionally provoking, are distanced enough that the young readers are not traumatized.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Leave a Comment