I spent Thursday afternoon viewing the new exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s strange, I had a wonderfully productive day there learning more about the Holocaust but you can’t say you had a great time, can you? What you see is so horrific, the depths humans sunk to in treating their fellow human beings so low, and the senseless loss of life…. you don’t “enjoy” it. But you learn, you know, you bear witness. The new exhibit is “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust” which focuses on the plight of the Jews at the hands of their friends and neighbors who turned them in to the Nazis for a variety of reasons: fear, greed, personal gain. It really was astonishing. As always, though, the Holocaust Museum creates these exhibits with such control and taste that you can bear seeing it. And see it you must.
I went to the gift shop to see what kinds of things such a place would sell. I visited Auschwitz in Poland a few years ago and was surprised to see a gift shop there. “Gift shop” was a misnomer – it was a book shop and they had an incredible array of books written by scholars, survivors, and historians. It was amazing. In the Holocaust Museum in D.C. they had loads of books as well. As always I end up in the children’s and young adult section and I was particularly interested in seeing what they carried. They had books like Snow Treasure (McSwigan), Number the Stars (Lowry), Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust (Bunting), The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm (Adler) and many, many more. A novel I had yet to read was The Last Train: A Holocaust Story by Rona Arato (Owlkids, 2013) so I picked up a copy while I was there. I also saw a brand new graphic novel called Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust which I had just read the previous evening.
The next morning I sat outside and read The Last Train which was wonderful. It is told by the wife of a Holocaust survivor, Paul, who was arrested in Hungary at age 5 with his mother and older brother and sent to a work camp where they helped raise food on a farm. Their father had already been arrested and taken away and they had no idea where he was or if he was alive. The story tells of their time in the camp and although it was awful, it was not as bad as some of the more notorious camps like Auschwitz. When the crops were in the family was sent to Bergen-Belsen where they stayed until the war was ending. The Nazis, as we know, transported prisoners in empty boxcars with no light, water, toilets, or food for day after day. When the cars were opened many were dead and all were traumatized. Imagine being 5 years-old and experiencing that. When the Nazis knew their defeat was imminent they loaded up as many Jews as they could and took them away from the camps in these death trains. There were stories of death marches and of trains taking them to death chambers. In Paul’s case, they were loaded on the last train from Bergen Belsen and spent four late winter days traveling through Germany before the Nazis abandoned them. It was there that the US Army found them and freed them. The story is remarkable especially because the whole family survived the Holocaust – even their father. This whole story was told because a teacher in Upstate New York did a project with his students about the Holocaust and, while doing so, posted a picture of one of the trains. Paul’s son saw it online and sent it to his mother to show his him. Paul recognized the train as the very one he had traveled on. He decided to be in touch with this teacher which led to a reunion of Paul and other survivors of the train as well as the two Army soldiers he remembered from their rescue. I have read a lot of Holocaust literature for children but I had never read one about the death trains. It was very compelling and, in the end, pretty inspirational. This book is for children ages 9-13 although School Library Journal suggest grades 7 and up. I thought 9-13 was appropriate.
When I finished The Last Train I returned to Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust (Dauvillier, Lizano & Salsedo, First Second, 2014) for another look. On my first read I was a little confused as to place and time but upon a second reading I realized it’s because I am not as adept at reading graphic novels as kids are. I read it carefully this time and came away with a deep respect for the book. This is the story of an old woman who lives with her son’s family. Her granddaughter finds her crying softly one night and Dounia, the grandmother, tells her the cause of her sadness – the story of her family’s escape from the Nazis. Actually, it was a nice contrast after seeing the “Some Were Neighbors” exhibit at the museum. In this case, Dounia’s family was helped by incredibly brave people in the resistance who put their lives on the line to help the Jews because they knew it was the right thing to do. The book is set in Paris in 1942 when the Nazis took control of France. The same pattern that the Nazis used in Germany was used again here. Jews were ostracized, made to wear the Star of David on their clothes, were turned away from school, and their shops were closed. Dounia’s father is arrested and taken away first and before long her mother is as well. But her mother placed Dounia in a cupboard with a secret cubbyhole as the Gestapo came bursting in. Their downstair’s neighbor looked for Dounia after the Gestapo left, found the child, and took her to live with her and her husband. That family ultimately decides to flee Paris because hiding a Jewish child in Paris was very hard to do. The girl and her new “mother” manage to get away safely but the husband has disappeared. Dounia loses her mother and father and now has to adjust to her new situation living on a farm in the countryside. Dounia is eventually reunited with her mother but her father is lost forever. If you look carefully at the art (which you really are supposed to do with graphic novels!) you can see that the palette is darker as Dounia reminisces with her granddaughter about that dark time and the lighter palette takes place during WWII. The story is terrific and the art is wonderful. This is a great addition to the corpus of Holocaust literature for children. Some reviewers say grades 3-6, others say ages 9-13. I thin it can fit into a elementary as well as a middle school.
I will finish up by telling you about a book that came out in 2000 called Forging Freedom that remains one of my favorites. It was written and illustrated by Hudson Talbott and based on the true story of a Dutch resistance fighter named Jaap Penraat. When the Nazis occupied Amsterdam, Jaap was a young man and he couldn’t understand the rampant anti-semitism he was seeing. Rather than stand by and let Jews go to their deaths he decided to make use of his father’s printing press and created false documents to spirit Jews out of the country. Jaap ended up saving the lives of over 400 people. Can you imagine? Hudson lives in upstate New York near Jaap Penraat. Jaap never told anyone about what he did during the war because he felt it was no big deal – he did what anyone else would have done. Hudson was listening to NPR one day when he heard his neighbor, Jaap, being interviewed because he had just been added to the wall of “The Righteous Among Nations” at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem. Hudson couldn’t believe his ears! This unassuming gentleman he knew was a freedom fighter! Naturally, this led to their collaboration and the creation of Forging Freedom.
I had the great pleasure of spending time with Hudson and Jaap when I brought them to the Virginia State Reading Association to present. They made their presentation and people were stunned by their talk. Here we were meeting someone who did the right thing at the risk of his own life and saved over 400 lives! It was remarkable. It really was an honor I’ll never forget. I told Jaap that I used to read The Lily Cupboard by Shulamith Levy Oppenheim to my 4th and 5th graders which deals with a Dutch family hiding a young Jewish girl. I told him that I told the kids that I hoped I would do the right thing if I were ever put to that test but you never know until you find yourself in that situation. He said simply and surely, “You would do the right thing.” He said that not because he knew that I would but that he assumed everyone would do the right thing. His moral code demanded he work to save those lives and he assumed we all had that same code. I hope he was right. Check out the book – it’s a story that needed to be told and I am so grateful Hudson brought that story to life. Jaap Penraat is gone now but his story lives on.
Finally, I would like to direct you to an annotated bibliography on books for children that relate to the Holocaust. I used to keep a bibliography going but the task was formidable and ever-changing. I no longer need to do it because the Holocaust Museum has this one which is more comprehensive than mine ever was. Click on the link below for a fabulous list so that you can choose books knowledgeably for the children in your classes.