Notable Holocaust Picture Books Illustrate People Making a Difference by Sandra Bornstein
The mere mention of the word “Holocaust” may cause a significant group of primary teachers to cringe. The thought of including a notable Holocaust picture book in a primary curriculum might be equally unappealing even though the underlying message revolves around people making a difference.
Some may immediately respond, “Isn’t the Holocaust a more appropriate topic for secondary students? Why expose innocent children to such a tragedy?”
Another group of teachers may believe that some of the basic lessons from the Holocaust can be taught to young children. Following this line of thinking would mirror the philosophy that any topic can be taught in an age appropriate way. These educators would be more receptive to the less descriptive books.
At the far end of the spectrum are teachers who feel that their primary students should not be sheltered from the harsh realities of life. They might reply, “Isn’t the evening news filled with bloodshed and violence? Why wouldn’t I include picture books about the Holocaust?”
Before considering any Holocaust picture book, a teacher must assess the dynamics of his/her classroom, the curriculum, the demographics of the school, and the content of the book(s). Equally important is the teacher’s comfort level with the topic and the willingness to convey accurate information. Each teacher must ultimately decide if it is a “right fit” for his/her classroom.
The six books that I am sharing in this posting are just a small sampling. Each provides the reader the opportunity to explore how an individual’s decision can have a rippling effect that has the capacity to help others. While each story is unique, they all illustrate how people can make a difference. The books are listed in alphabetic order.
Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen, as told to Michelle R. McCann by Luba Tryszynska-Frederick and illustrated by Ann Marshall
How a person responds to a dangerous situation tells a lot about his/her character. After finding 54 children on the outskirts of a concentration camp grounds, Luba is forced to decide whether she can attempt to save them or leave them to die. Enlisting the cooperation of others, all of which put their lives in danger, enabled all but one to survive.
Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story by Marci Sillerman and illustrated by Pesach Gerber
Life in the concentration camps was harsh and cruel. Clinging to traditions and memories provided hope for many. Working together to gather nine spoons, allowed one woman the wherewithal to create a menorah made from the spoons. Without going into details, the story illustrates some of the stark realities of life in the concentration camps and the importance of Jewish holidays.
Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee with an afterward by Hikoki Sugihara
Older children may be aware of Oscar Shindler’s story- Schindler’s List. An equally engaging story focuses on the heroic life of Chiune Sugihara. He was a righteous Gentile who used his diplomatic status to save the lives of countless Jews. Even though he was ordered by his government to not help the Jews, he risked his life and reputation to do what he felt was right.
The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak by Tomek Bogacki
Picture books that highlight the lives of notable individuals can be memorable. Janusz was a doctor and writer who dedicated his life to child advocacy. Sadly his democratically run orphanage was lost when he was forced to move his children into the Warsaw Ghetto. His amazing story lives on even though he perished in the Treblinka concentration camp with his orphans.
The Harmonica by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Ron Mazellan
This picture book illustrates how simple acts can have profound effects on people. The playing of the main character’s harmonica not only provided an avenue for his own survival, but also provided inspiration and hope for his fellow concentration camp prisoners.
Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Stephen Gammell
Decades after Eve Bunting dipped into the genre of children’s Holocaust literature, this book remains a popular choice as an introduction to the Holocaust. Using an allegory, Bunting successfully introduces both young and old to what happens when animals turn their back on the bad things that are happening in their community. The book provides a springboard for a lively discussion about the choices everyone makes.
Would you share a Holocaust picture book with your class?
This is just a sampling of Holocaust picture books that can be utilized in a primary setting. An Amazon search will provide a more complete list of available books. For additional information visit:
Holocaust Teacher Resource Center
United States Holocaust Museum
Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center
Sandra Bornstein recently published May This Be the Best Year of Your Life. The memoir chronicles her living and international teaching adventure in India. Sandra writes a blog that focuses on education, travel, Jewish culture, and general musing. She is a licensed Colorado teacher with a Linguistically Diverse Education K-12 endorsement and two masters’ degrees- one in education and the other in Jewish Studies. You can find her on Twitter as @sandrabornstein.
The issue of when children are ready to engage with the Holocaust is something I feel strongly about. Years ago I wrote a blog post on this and my feelings haven’t changed: https://medinger.wordpress.com/2006/11/11/the-holocaust-for-young-children.
I admit I’m sensitive to this because of my family as the Holocaust is our personal history — both sides are/were German Jews. My father escaped with his mother when he was 14 while his father stayed and was killed. My mother left with her family a few years later. I have family still in Germany and others who went to England and Brazil. People wonder why my grandfather would stay as he did and then was killed. (Because he identified as German firstly and thought he could ride it out.) People wonder at my connection to Germany today. (I have relatives who lived through the Holocaust because their great grandparents had converted — some of them feel they want to be Jewish again, they identify with our family profoundly.)
And so I agree wholeheartedly with the educators at the United States Holocaust Museum (you’ve a link to it above) who write in their guidelines (http://www.ushmm.org/education/foreducators/guideline/):
“Students in grades 6 and above demonstrate the ability to empathize with individual eyewitness accounts and to attempt to understand the complexities of this history, including the scope and scale of the events. While elementary students are able to empathize with individual accounts, they often have difficulty placing them in a larger historical context.”
“In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum setting in Washington, D.C., the exhibition Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story, introduces students in grades 4 and up to the history of the Holocaust. The exhibition tells about real events based on the experiences of Jewish children from Germany. The multimedia approach in this exhibition was carefully designed for late elementary school students as an introduction and not an in-depth look at the history.”
For me, a veteran elementary teacher who has observed children grappling with historical horrors, the Holocaust is an enormously complicated topic. I’m not sure I will ever understand it (I mean — who can truly?) , but I will continue to advocate for deep consideration of it by young people.
Thank you for taking the time to voice your opinion. I understand and respect your sensitivity to the subject. I appreciate your sharing the links to your posting. I had included the link to the US Holocaust Museum as well as others in my blog.
I realize that many educators still disagree over the appropriate way to introduce horrific topics such as the Holocaust. However, I draw a sharp distinction between a formal history/social studies class and the introduction of people who made a difference during the Holocaust. The books that I mentioned in this blog focus on people or an allegory with animals.
American primary teachers routinely talk about American heroes who were associated with the American Revolution or the Civil War. While it is necessary to talk in general terms about war, they do not linger on the brutalities nor do they discuss it using an historical perspective. The same line of thinking applies to stories relating to World War II.
If the US Holocaust Memorial as well as other Holocaust museums around the world felt that the entire topic was taboo, none would have created exhibits that could be viewed by upper elementary students.
Additionally, traditional mainstream publishers would avoid this genre, if they felt that the topic was inappropriate. Many Holocaust picture books have won prominent awards and have received glowing reviews from respected entities.
As I mentioned in my blog, everyone has to assess whether a book is a right fit. I provided links to websites so that educators and parents could read more about this topic and decide whether it was appropriate for their particular situation.
Thank you for sharing these titles. I have to admit that even though I believe that any topic can be shared with young children in an age- appropriate way, I did cringe a bit at the thought of “picture books” about the holocaust. Your post reframed the typical gory approach that many take to the Holocaust from the point of view of ordinary people faced with moral choices. That is a lesson we want all of our students to learn.
If you end up reading any of these picture books or other Holocaust picture books, I’d love to hear your feedback. The Holocaust picture books are intended for a variety of audiences. It is important to read through the story and determine if the book is appropriate.
Yes, of course!
Thank you! I have a pair of fourth graders who want to do research on this topic, and I’m trying to nudge them toward learning about those who made a positive difference (especially since they are presenting to a group of other students who may not be able to handle other aspects of this time period)
Marie, Keep me posted. I’d be interested in hearing which books interested your students and how the books affected their view of the Holocaust.
What an excellent list of resources. I’ll be referring to it again and again (and recommending it). When we forget the past, well, we all know what happens. Thank you!
I appreciate your taking the time to comment. As someone who has spent decades studying Jewish and secular history, I agree that we need to remain fully aware of past events. Let me know if you need information on any additional Holocaust book titles. The books provided in this posting were just a cross section of what is available.
These are some wonderful choices, many I hadn’t heard of. I really think it’s important topic that really connects with the issue of bullying, perfect inspiration for making the best choice. Thanks for sharing!
I enjoyed this. I’m on the side of, “Yes, children should learn about the holocaust and the life-changing lessons behind it…but how?” I’ll be looking out for these books!
Another book that’s good is basically any age-appropriate Anne Franks story.
Holocaust content needs to be taught with special considerations. The websites that I included in the posting are a good place to start. Some of the abridged Anne Frank books are suitable for younger audiences. Once again, it is always wise to read through books and decide for yourself whether the material is appropriate for a classroom or your own children.
Most of these titles are brand new to me. I’m glad you wrote about them with such depth here. They’re going to go on my list of books to buy when my daughter comes of age. May we never forget.
I’m glad that I could provide useful information. Yes, I agree. We should not forget.
You may want to add I Never Saw Another Butterfly. This book contains actual pictures and poems written by children in the Terezin concentration camp. After the camp was liberated, soldiers walking through found pieces of paper stuffed into the cracks and crevices of the walls of the camp, and soon realized the children had written and drawn of a life outside the camp. Very good book,
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