At the end of April, Jews across the world will take a special moment to pause and reflect about the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Passover, another Jewish holiday that started Monday night, is also a time where we often focus on commemorating and retelling the tragedy of the Holocaust and the amazing efforts that many Jews took to escape the Nazis and start a new life.
There are many truly amazing books for younger readers about the Holocaust. While a number of them are what you might consider middle grade fiction, and sometimes non-fiction, there are also some picture books that tell the story very well. It is a difficult topic to touch on, so all good books have to tread somewhat lightly and focus on the resilience and perseverance of a nation of people rather than on the tragedy itself. Here are a few of the books we have managed to read.
A great way to start the conversation about what happened in Nazi Germany is to tell the story of Kristallnacht through the eyes of a cat. It works so well because the cat is a third party who completely doesn’t understand that there is any religion involved. This is the premise of Benno and the Night of Broken Glass. In this great book, Benno the cat is loved by his village, which includes Sophie Adler, a Jewish girl, and Inga Schmidt, a non-Jew. Their religion, and that of anyone in the book, is unwritten. The two girls are best of friends and the village takes care of Benno until things begin to change. The “men in brown shirts” start coming into the story more and we sadly see the friendship of the two girls dissolve. “Then came a night like no other.” Benno the cat tells of how buildings are burned, windows broken, and terror ensues. But even Benno notices that some buildings are hit and others are not. After that night, Benno no longer sees the people who are Jewish and “life on Rosenstrasse would never be the same.” An equally marvelous afterword tells the true story of Kristallnacht in terms that a young child can hear. One of the better picture books aimed at a young audience.
The most historic telling of what happened is, not surprisingly, told in the story of Anne Frank, although this time in the book A Picture Book of Anne Frank, by David A. Adler. Anne Frank’s story is the most well-known story of the Holocaust due to the publication of her diary. This book does a brief retelling of what she went through, but it also adeptly covers the time that her family lived in Germany, how Hitler came to power, and how countries declared themselves closed to Jewish refugees. The part of this book that does make it for older readers is that it talks bluntly of how the Germans found the Frank’s hiding place and how Anne and Margot were taken to Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen where they both perished. A very powerful introduction to the story of Anne Frank and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Graphic novels are a wonderful way to tell the story of the Holocaust. Hidden, by Loïc Dauvillier, is a poignant story about a grandmother telling her granddaughter the story of how her parents hid her when the Nazis came. Dounia is a young girl in France who doesn’t understand when her family is forced to wear the yellow stars showing that they are Jewish. Once that happens, her life quickly starts to change as people begin to treat her differently. One night her parents get taken by the Nazis, but they had devised a plan with neighbors to keep her safe. Miraculously it works, but after a bit of time, they start searching for her again and she must run. This story shows how people went to great measures to help people and resist the Nazis.
Another tale of people harboring the Jews and getting them to safety can be found in The Whispering Town, by Jennifer Elvgren. This story tells of the Danish resistance and how, after the Germans took control of Denmark in 1943, many Danes hid Danish Jews and managed to get them passage across the sound to nearby neutral Sweden. Usually they relied on a bright moon to help guide the Jews through the village to the boats, but there was a moonless night where the town relied on whispered directions to get the Jews to safety. This is a wonderful book to share with even young readers as it shows the bravery and impact that many had in saving thousands of lives.
For many Jews, it was a harrowing experience trying to escape German occupied territories. Getting a visa was difficult and then getting across borders was an additional concern. Michelle Bisson tells her own mother’s story of escaping Hungary in Hedy’s Journey: The True Story of a Hungarian Girl Fleeing the Holocaust. Told with exceptional detail, Bisson tells her mother’s journey and about the atrocities that the Nazis caused without making it a frightening tale. While Hungarians were initially considered German allies, especially after having fought together in WWI, “now it was different. Jews were considered the enemy.” Hedy’s parents and brother managed to escape, but Hedy had to Portugal on her own, as the first train they could book passage on only had room for 3. We don’t often think about the journeys that people had to take to escape. Since I recently also read We Were the Lucky Ones, the topic has been on my mind. This picture book really does a remarkable job talking about a part of the Holocaust that many often forget.
One of the stories that children learn when they learn about the Holocaust is how people were saved by the righteous and brave deeds of others. In Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story, by Ken Mochizuki, we learn the often untold story of Chiune Sugihara and his family. Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania in 1940. One day, a large group of refugees appeared at his home begging for help. He knew that there were more people needing visas than he could give without getting permission from the Japanese government. He asked three separate times and was refused, yet he decided that he couldn’t just let these people die and issued them anyway. This story is told through the eyes of his son Hiroki who lived through the time in Lithuania. Sugihara knew that he couldn’t just sit by and let the Nazis get these people – “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t, I will be disobeying God.” A very powerful book.
Not all picture books are great for young audiences. The Harmonica, by Tony Johnston, is a wonderful book inspired by a true story, but it is very dark and should be read to older readers. This story tells of a young boy who grew up in a poor by happy home that was always filled with music – first his family’s singing, then later the sounds of Schubert from a neighbor’s gramophone. His father was able to give him a harmonica and he played it all the time. But his family’s happiness would end when the Nazis came and he was separated from his parents as they all got sent to concentration camps. When the pain of the camp gets to be too much for him, he turns back to the harmonica. By a stroke of luck, a commandant loved Schubert and found out the boy could play. This probably saved his life as he was given extra rations of bread. He hated playing for the commandant, but when he found that his fellow prisoners could hear the music and were soothed by it, it made playing special again. Illustrator Ron Mazellan does an excellent job capturing the pain of the boys situation and the darkness that was the concentration camps.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings gives a gentle reminder to always look for the blessings and that “even in bad times, people can be good.” Young Oskar is sent to America to live with his aunt after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, November 9, 1938. He arrived in New York on the 7th day of Hanukkah, which also happened to be Christmas Eve that year. He walked from Battery Park to 103rd street and found people performing random acts of kindness toward him. This is a book about hope, the thing that the ancient Jews had when they fought against Antiochus. We always need to have hope, even when things seem incredibly dark. While a simple story, this one is also probably best for slightly older children as it many opportunities for talking points.
Every Wednesday I try to post a non-fiction picture book as part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy. There are truly so many amazing nonfiction picture books being published these days, it can be hard to contain myself sometimes. Make sure to check out Kid Lit Frenzy and the linked blogs to find some more fabulous books!