Learning about the Holocaust: How Young is Too Young?

One mother in my step-daughter’s seventh-grade class complained.

Hanas_suitcase_on_stageThe teacher incorporated John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas into the lesson-plan, and this mother believes the subject is inappropriate for twelve- and thirteen-year-old students.

Are children too young to grapple with such serious subjects?

The story of Hana’s Suitcase suggests otherwise.

And certainly children younger than my step-daughter directly experienced the Holocaust.

Karen Levine’s book is based on the story behind a suitcase marked “Hana Brady, May 16, 1931, Waisenkind” (‘orphan’ in German).

The suitcase was received by Fumiko Ishioka, who curates a small Holocaust education centre for children in Tokyo.

When the curators at the Auschwitz museum agreed to loan her some artifacts, the children at the centre were particularly intrigued by the case and by the details that emerged about Hana’s story.

Her girlhood experiences are recreated in a believable and accessible manner. Certain facts have been uncovered, but the emotional aspects of her story are drawn from the experiences of survivors.

“One day, Hana and George lined up at the movie theater to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When they got to the ticket box they saw a sign that read ‘No Jews Allowed’. Their faces red, their eyes burning, Hana and George turned on their heels and headed for home. When Hana walked in the door, she was furious and very upset. ‘What is happening to us? Why can’t I go to the movies? Why can’t I just ignore the sign?’ Mother and Father looked grimly at each other. There were no easy answers.”

The question of what children should know, how much they can handle, surfaces directly in the text, too; this is something that adults and older children struggled to determine while the events unfolded around them.

“Every few weeks a letter would arrive from Father, who was imprisoned in the Iglau Nazi prison. George would read only the cheerful part to his sister. George thought Hana was too young to know the whole truth about the harsh conditions in prison and how desperate Father was to be free. She was not too young, though, to be deported by the Nazis.”

The details of camp life are recounted in straightforward language, and the tenth anniversary edition of Hana’s Suitcase (2013) contains a number of photographs and documents to add to the descriptions.

“Lists. Everywhere there were lists. The Nazis were systematic record keepers and they wanted all their prisoners to know it. Through the constant counting and listing of people, the Nazis reminded the inmates who was in charge. Everyone knew that being counted, being noticed, could mean a transport and another separation from family and friends.”

But Hana’s story is not unremittingly bleak. There are moments of kindness recounted. (And something wonderful does happen as a result of Fumiko Ishioka’s explorations.)

“In Terezin, where there was never enough to eat, residents received a small buchta, a plain doughnut, once a week. Hana never ate hers. She brought it to George so he could be strong and stay sweet.”

TherightsmugAs the most well-known work within Second Story’s Holocaust Remembrance Series, Hana’s Suitcase is” now being read around the world by hundreds of thousands of children, in more than forty languages. Fumiko, George and the suitcase continue to travel, sharing Hana’s story, the lessons of history and a message of tolerance”.

There are, however, many other works for children and teens in this series (many by Kathy Kacer, which will be discussed in a separate post) which educate and engage young readers.

Debbie Spring’s The Righteous Smuggler (2005) tells the story of Hendrik, the young son of a poor Dutch fisherman who must grapple with moral questions that might have seemed beyond his capacity, when Holland was invaded by Nazi soldiers in 1940.

“It was hard for me to sit still. I felt like punching something. Johan, Pieter, Malka, and Jacob had been my friends since first grade. I never even thought of them as Jewish. They didn’t think of me as Christian. We didn’t care about religion. We only thought about ourselves as friends.”

Hendrik is a fictional creation, but his story is based on real-life accounts of smugglers who aided those threatened with deportation.

Kathy Clark wrote Guardian Angel House (2009) after she saw the documentary film Orangyalhaz (‘Guardian Angel House’ in Hungarian), created by the Hungarian movie producer Anna Merei.

The film portrayed the actual events which occurred in the Convent of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul during 1944-45, but Kathy Clark had first heard about the convent from her mother, Vera, who had taken refuge there as a girl.

“‘I thought…’ began Viktor, ‘I thought that perhaps his daughters could come here to the convent. There are so many girls here. A couple more or less would not make that much difference. They could pretend to be orphans, or young novices. No one would dream of looking for Jewish girls here. Everything in the country needs identity papers now. But no one would come here asking for identity papers. Not in a convent.'”

Guardian_angel_house_final_smallThis was not an easy decision for the family to make.

“‘No!’ Mama broke in firmly. ‘My girls will never pretend to be Catholics. We will not hide who we are. We are proud to be Jews. We don’t need Catholic charity.'”

Eventually, however, Vera and her older sister, Susan, enter the convent, which the author also describes in a short video.

Guardian Angel House also considers that it was not only Jewish children who had to go into hiding to survive.

“‘Everybody knows about the Jews and what is happening to them,’ said Lena, her voice quivering. ‘But the Nazis and those Arrow Cross soldiers are also after us Gypsies. They don’t like anyone who is different from them.'”

It’s clear that the storyteller in Guardian Angel House survived to tell her story, and that the survivors feel an obligation to share their experiences, however painful that process may be.

“‘Those of us who survived, we have all suffered. We must each tell our own stories now – stories of  both the living and the dead […] I hope the world has the strength to hear them all.'”

There are a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, which add to this body of storytelling (even a Teachers’ Resource here).

Second Story Press takes kidlit seriously. Are you familiar with their Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers?



  1. Anna February 23, 2014 at 5:03 pm - Reply

    I agree with Jackie that the content needs to be based on the age. My daughter is 13, but she learned about the Holocaust when she was very young, mainly through my interest in World War II books. We went to the Holocaust museum in D.C. together, too. In her history class in 8th grade, they showed a documentary that didn’t sugarcoat the horrors at all. She’d watched documentaries with me, so she wasn’t learning anything new, but she did come home and talk about it with me. I’m waiting a bit to watch Schindler’s List with her, but there are definitely plenty of books out there suitable for children of all ages. That mother is entitled to her opinion, but 12- and 13-year-olds certainly could handle that book.

    • Buried In Print February 25, 2014 at 8:43 am - Reply

      I think your daughter is lucky to have been able to attend the museum with you. And even though Hana’s Suitcase would be suitable for children younger than 13 too, I wonder if she would enjoy the alignment of Hana’s story with the museum curators’ (and child volunteers’) stories, all the different ways that these memories are being preserved. Her understanding is likely more sophisticated than the intended audience’s, but the spine of the story is amazing.

      • Anna February 25, 2014 at 4:47 pm - Reply

        I’ll have to let her know about that book. She’s read several WWII/Holocaust novels, but right now she’s on a dystopian kick.

        • Buried In Print February 25, 2014 at 5:56 pm - Reply

          I’ve been just on the tippy-toe of that kick myself lately, but I think the entire foot is about to get involved, now that I’ve gathered up some good ones (I think).

          • Anna February 25, 2014 at 6:32 pm - Reply

            Ooh…which ones are you planning to read?

  2. Stefanie February 13, 2014 at 11:00 am - Reply

    I don’t think the kids are too young either. Of course the material has to be age appropriate, but they need to know. I learned about the Holocaust in elementary school and by junior high history we had a film with pictures of one of the camps being liberated. My husband who is Jewish knew about it from a very young age.

    • Buried In Print February 25, 2014 at 8:36 am - Reply

      I don’t think it was something we studied in narrative until ninth grade English, with the dramatization of Anne Frank’s diary, but the war itself certainly appeared in our history books the same year. Interesting that you remember these visuals; I don’t recall anything from schoolbooks or films from that time. I wonder if some mothers’ objections were at work then too.

  3. Vasilly February 12, 2014 at 5:35 pm - Reply

    I don’t think the kids are too young to know about events like the Holocaust. I remember being the same age when I stumbled upon Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. It was eye-opening to read the story. After that, came other books. I think we need to share these stories with our children instead of trying to shield them from so much. Let them learn from the mistakes made by others before them.

    • Buried In Print February 25, 2014 at 8:34 am - Reply

      You raise a good point, too, in saying that these are stories to be shared. Certainly in a classroom, teachers are guiding the students, and perhaps that would be essential too, with more demanding works. But reading the stories with the kids and leaving room for questions could lead to some very interesting discussions.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings February 12, 2014 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    I certainly think 12 and 13 year olds need to know these things – remembering what I was like at that age, I was quite mature enough (or are modern young people babied so much?) We really must not allow this kind of censorship and never forget what happened in the Holocaust.

    • Buried In Print February 25, 2014 at 8:31 am - Reply

      That certainly is a big question, as to whether kids that age are babied so much that they cannot cope as readily with such information nowadays. I was not discouraged from reading the memoirs that I unearthed at that age, but I likely would have learned more and sooner had a series like this been available to me as a young reader.

  5. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) February 12, 2014 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    I don’t think it is ever too young to teach children about these things. You have to change the content based on the age, but I mention the horrible things that people have done to each other even to my 6-year-old. He sees it on the news and I think it is important for them to know that the world isn’t always a nice place to live. You just have to be careful not to be at all graphic in the content. I’ve just seen The Book Thief film and that is aimed at children of this age (12-13). I haven’t come across the Holocaust Rememberence series, but it sounds like an important series.

    • Buried In Print February 25, 2014 at 8:28 am - Reply

      I also think it’s interesting that what strikes a reader as graphic can vary immensely from one to the next (although, of course, there is a wide swatch upon which most can likely agree too). But recently I was reading the annotated The Wizard of Oz and learned that Baum deliberately sought to make his story light and fun so that it would not conjure up frightening visuals for young readers, but one of the essayists included in the commentary was quick to point out the specific scenes that truly terrified him when he was a boy. I’ve yet to read The Book Thief, but am itching to do so (and to see the film as well). Will trundle off to your site to see if you enjoyed it….

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