Kid Lit: When is it OK to Talk About the Holocaust?

The Holocaust is hard to talk about…

It was a terrible, horrific time in history. However, it’s important to teach the Holocaust to future generations to honor those whose lives were so savagely taken and to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself (although history has the stubborn habit of doing that anyway). Think about it. When did you learn about the Holocaust? Like me, many people in my generation grew up just knowing about the Holocaust. When I was a kid, I remember knowing someone whose grandparents lived through the Holocaust.

Kids today don’t really know about the Holocaust. It has to be explicitly taught. As a parent, how do you explain to your child someone decided that an entire population should be exterminated, like getting rid of that pesky ant mound in your front yard? How do you explain that 11 million people were murdered? How do explain that crap like that is still happening around the world?

I hope you have answers to these questions, because I certainly don’t. Even though I have no idea how to teach these terrible moments in history to my child, I know I have to try and just hope I do a good job.

My daughter and I were in the library a couple of weeks ago. She usually doesn’t get to come with us because I take my son while she’s in school. She was on fall break though and was able to tag along. I know this child is mine because she loves the library as much as I do. Walking through the stacks, soaking in the gentle hum of conversations, the seemingly limitless potential of options at your fingertips; there’s no place either of us love more.We were in the juvenile graphic novel section looking for books when I came across Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer. I thumbed through it and asked Lilly if she’d like to read it together. She agreed and we put it in our bag. That evening, we sat down and started reading it together. Lilly had already gotten through half the book on her own, but we backed up and read from the beginning together so I could explain things to her.

Lily Rene was the daughter of a successful steamship company owner living in Austria. The book briefly tells of Hitler’s rise to power and the treatment of Jews in Austria. Lily Rene was able to escape Austria through Kindertransport, a program that helped Jewish children live with sponsor families in England. The book gave a little information about Kindertransport. And then, in a blurb at the bottom we read, “By September 1939, England and Germany were at war and Kindertransport ended. Of the less-fortunate children who remained behind, 1.5 million were murdered by the Nazis.” My daughter was of course shocked and asked why. Why on Earth would anyone murder children? I tried my best to explain. Hitler and the Nazis viewed Jews as the source of their country’s economic problems and considered them less than human. Those who supported Hitler were fueled by fear which was warped into hate. But in the end, there is no real explanation for the cold-blooded murder of 1.5 million children.

Lily Rene lived with her sponsor family in England with no knowledge of whether or not her parents back in Austria were ok. She lived for almost three years in England and faced many difficulties. After almost being arrested by the British police for being considered an “enemy alien”, Lilly Rene was finally reunited with her parents in America. Lily Rene was a talented artist and found success illustrating comics, which was a male dominated field at the time (and still is).

After we finished reading the book, my Lilly was inspired by this story and Lily Rene’s ability to persevere. Through all of her challenges, she kept a positive outlook and never gave up. We found out that Lily Rene is still alive and living in New York. Lilly wants to write her a letter to tell her how much she was inspired by her story.

This book serves as a great starting point to teach children about the Holocaust. It shows the inhumane treatment of Jews by the Nazis on a level that children can understand. At the beginning of this book I was constantly asking myself if my daughter was too young to learn about the Holocaust. I found that Lilly was not scarred by the horrific facts presented in the book and came out with greater empathy for others.

As a former middle school teacher, I was already familiar with books about the Holocast. However, most of them, if not all, would be inappropriate for anyone under the age of 12.

Here are a couple of other books about the Holocaust that are kid-appropriate:

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust  by Loic Dauvillier
Age Range: Grades 3-6
“In this gentle, poetic young graphic novel, Dounia, a grandmother, tells her granddaughter the story even her son has never heard: how, as a young Jewish girl in Paris, she was hidden away from the Nazis by a series of neighbors and friends who risked their lives to keep her alive when her parents had been taken to concentration camps.”

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass (Holocaust) by Meg Wiviott Age Range: Grades 3-5
“A neighborhood cat observes the changes in German and Jewish families in Berlin during the period leading up to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. This cat’s-eye view introduces the Holocaust to children in a gentle way that can open discussion of this period.”

The Harmonica by Tony Johnston
Age Range: Grades 3-6
“When the Nazis invaded Poland, a family is split apart. The parents are sent to one concentration camp, their son to another. Only his father’s gift, a harmonica, keeps the boy’s hopes alive and, miraculously, ensures his survival.”

8 thoughts on “Kid Lit: When is it OK to Talk About the Holocaust?

  1. Our 8th graders study the Holocaust in language arts class. Oddly, my 6th graders often want gory murder mysteries, so I imagine those children would be okay with most of the Holocaust stories I have. There are so many awful things in the news that telling children about awful things in the past really is not that surprising to them. Sadly.

  2. I enjoyed Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer as well. I think if students are readers, there is certainly a lot of fiction available that introduces them to the Holocaust. I’m familiar with most of these books above.
    Have you read The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen? It is a good novel that introduces student to this terrible history.

    1. Yes! I taught it a few years ago. I found that the kids had a hard time connecting with the Yiddish/historical aspect of the book. My FAVORITE YA Holocaust is The Boy on the Wooden Stool. It’s a memoir about a boy who was on “Schindler’s List”. It was amazing!

  3. Thank you for sharing this very truthful post. I remember going to a museum that displayed many of the stories from this horrific time. I want my daughter to be aware of all the bad and good people are capable of doing so that she can be a better person when she gets older. Thank you again.

    1. You’re welcome. Thank you for reading! That’s what I love about Holocaust stories; the light that we can find in humanity even in the darkest of times.

  4. This is such a good question and one I’ve been struggling with lately about multiple topics: the Holocaust, 9/11, school and other mass shootings, murder in general. My first grader asked me the other day where I was in 2001, which made me wonder if she had heard about 9/11. It’s something I need to circle back to, but how to discuss these things without terrifying them weighs on me. I think I will definitely lean on Mr. Rogers–“look for the helpers.”

    In some ways, my kids are more sheltered from this stuff than I was as a kid; my parents watched the news on TV every night and I picked up what was going on. Now we rarely watch the news–or live TV at all–when our kids are awake. It maybe wasn’t a good thing (I had an unhealthy fear of being killed in my bed as a kid), but historical and cultural awareness is important. I don’t ever remember a time I didn’t know about the Holocaust.

    Thanks for this book recommendation and review–it sounds like one worth checking out.

    1. Yes, it’s really difficult to gage what is appropriate for your kids and what they can handle. As a parent, you want to shelter them but you also want them to be well-rounded and empathetic to others. I think it all depends on the child and the family.

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