Teaching the Holocaust in literature can be a difficult subject to breach with students. It is so writhe with pain, and despair during a time when teens are trying to avoid pain at all costs. The Holocaust in literature should be handled delicately with a clear purpose and intention. We must always remember, we must never forget. For these reasons I have taught the following pieces of literature surrounding the Holocaust: White Bird by R.J. Palacio, Refugee by Alan Gratz, Night by Elie Weisel, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Anne Frank’s Diary by Ari Folman, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. These are all books that portray the pain of the Holocaust in a respectful, dignified manner.
Teaching the Holocaust
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Teaching the Holocaust in Literature: Refugee
Refugee (Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by Alan Gratz is three separate stories from three separate Refugees. They are all young teens. One refugee is from Syria, one Cuba, and one from Hansburg. One of the refugees named Josef is ordered to leave Hansburg, to board a ship to Cuba. Cuba isn’t safe so the plan is to leave Cuba and head to America. At some point Josef and his family travel on the MS St. Lewis (a real ship from the past) with 900 refugees on board. When they get to Cuba, Cuba decides they will no longer by accepting refugees, so the ship sets its sights for America. America turns this ship away knowing that they are sending it back to Europe where they could all die. The ship sets sail for Canada. Unfortunately, Canada also turns the ship away. At this point the refugees are running out of food and supplies and desperately end up in the UK where they are finally accepted. In the UK they were in danger of bombs but were at least out of Hitler’s path. Josef’s story also includes his father who escapes from a concentration camp and is suffering from PTSD. The details of the book are true but the book has fictional characters. The chapters switch back and forth from one character to the next. A second character is Isabel in the 2000’s trying to escape from Fidel Castro by fleeing to the United States. Mahamoud is the third character trying to flee from Syria to the United States. All three stories contain similarities and differences. In the book there is a map at the end that shows the route each refugee takes.
Teaching the Holocaust in Literature: Maus
Maus (Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by Art Speigelman is on the Holocaust literature list. It is a rich and engaging graphic novel about a man from Poland. The book weaves in and out between two timelines, a narrative present, and a narrative past. The book is told by Vladek which is Speigelman’s father who tells the story from the 1930’s to the end of the Holocaust in the 1940’s. Vladek tells about his time spent in concentration camps in Poland where he meets Speigelaman’s mother, Anja. Vladek makes a good impression on the parents of Anja who give their blessing in the marriage. Vladek opens a factory and he and Anja have a son. Eventually Vladek is taken as a prisoner of war while fighting with Poland. He escapes and manages to keep his family safe. Vladek and Anja send their son to live with Anja’s sister. The Aunt, afraid of being killed in a gas chamber kills herself, her children, and Vladek and Anja’s son. Both Vladek and Anja are captured and sent to Auschwitz. Vladek and Anja move from one ghetto hiding place to the next. The story jumps from the 1940’s to 1986 where Vladek struggles to tell his painful stories. He recounts that he was marched from Auschwitz to Dachau where he suffered from abuse and starvation. He shares his stories of resourcefulness and avoidance of the gas chambers. The war ends, camp survivors reunite bringing Vladek and Anja back together. At the end the story Vladek is saying he’s tired followed by a picture of a tombstone for Vladek and Anja. Vladek died in 1982 before the publication of the book. Spiegeman’s mom, Anja commits suicide in her 20’s and his father admits to destroying all of her recounts at Auschwitz. For this reason Speigelman is estranged from his father who married another woman. This novel is a graphic novel memoir. The Jews are represented as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Poles as pigs. The story has been referenced as many different genres: memoir, biography, history, autobiography, and more. It is the first and only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.
Teaching the Holocaust: Anne Frank’s Diary
Anne Frank’s Diary (Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by Ari Folman is the perfect introduction to Holocaust literature. It is a nonfictional graphic novel adaptation of the Diary of Anne Frank. The story is about a 12 year old girl living in Holland in 1942. The proceeds of this graphic novel continue to go to charities around the world. The graphic novel captures “The Diary of Anne Frank” in its complete essence. Text is used from the real diary in the graphic novel adaptation. Otto Frank, Anne’s father survived the Holocaust and was the one who published the original work. Anne was murdered in a concentration camp but not before she chronicled the time she spent with her family hiding from the Nazis. She shares feeling and thoughts in line with a coming of age novel. When Margot, Anne’s sister received a summons to a Nazi work camp, Otto too summons to hide in Holland. The secret annex of the building where he ran a business producing Opeketa. Loyal employees agreed to keep the factory running while also providing food and supplies to Anne and her family. Anne wrote two years of entries in her diary she named Kitty up until March 1944 when the Dutch government called on citizens to document their experiences under Nazi rule. Anne added loose leafs of paper to enhance her diary. Her final entry is dated August 1st, 1944 which was raided three days later by the Gestapo. All occupants were arrested. Anne was deported to Westerbrok, second Auschwitz, and lastly Belsen where she died. Otto’s secretary managed to salvage Anne’s diary. Anne wrote, “You’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to be a journalist and later on, a famous writer. We’ll have to wait and see if these grand illusions will ever come true, but up to now I’ve had no lack of topics. In any case, after the war I’d like to publish a book called “The Secret Annex”. It remains to be seen whether it will succeed”-Anne Frank
Holocaust in Literature: White Bird
White Bird (Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by R.J. Palacio is a story of faith, hope, loneliness, bravery, empathy, and love in the 1940’s, France. The story begins with a previous character from “Wonder”, named Julian, asking his grandmother if he can interview her for a school assignment. At first she resists, as her past is painful, but then she tells Julian the story of her youth and of where his name originated. Sara (Julian’s grandmother) is a Jewish girl who loses her parents and is forced to hide at school when Nazi’s come to take all Jewish students to concentration camps. Sara is stuck in the bell tower until a German student named Julian risks everything to get her to safety. Julian takes Sara through the sewer and hides her away in his parents’ barn. Julian’s parents and Julian proceed to hide Sara there for years, taking every precaution not to get caught. Vincent, who is a Nazi German, following in the footsteps of his harsh Nazi father, takes extra notice of Julian. Julian has polio, a limp, and uses crutches to get around. Vincent picks on him, and brutalizes him to and from school. Vincent busts into the barn to see what Vincent is hiding. Sara is not caught but shortly after Vincent murders Julian in an open field. Sara and Julian’s parents are devastated. Meanwhile, back as Julian’s grandmother, Sara makes Julian promise her to speak out against any injustice he sees. Julian makes a promise to his grandmother.
Holocaust in Literature: Night
Night (Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by Elie Weisel is a memoir of a man who suffered starvation, unimaginable abuses, and crimes at Auschwitz. The story begins with his family being awoken in the middle of the night. He his mom, sister, and father are forced to a ghetto where they are to await transportation to a concentration camp. The memoir documents Elie Weisel’s experiences crammed into a train like cattle, losing his sister and mother, watching people die including his own father, having his gold fillings removed from his mouth for German profit, watching a man crawl to a pot of soup to try and get a bite before collapsing and dying from starvation, watching a child hang for hours before finally dying. Night is a difficult book to read and I suggest only reading it at the high school level not middle school.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers) by John Boyne is a novel about a boy who is the son of the head of the Nazi party. His father has been selected to run Auschwitz and this child has been taken with the rest of his family-sister and mother, to live just outside the fence of the concentration camp. The little boy has no knowledge of what the camp is and in fact refers to the boys as wearing pajamas. The boy in a desperate attempt to make a friend, befriends a boy from the inside of the fence. They meet everyday and chat about regular things. The boy is completely unaware of how bad things are for the other boy when he suggests that he sneak inside the camp to get a tour and help the boy in the striped pajamas find his father (it can be inferred that his father has passed). The boy puts on a striped jumpsuit and sneaks into the concentration camp. It is here when he realizes how awful it is and when he says he’s ready to go home, he is directed into the gas chambers where he perishes. Later his father finds his regular clothes just outside the fence and notes that gap in between the fence and the ground. He is able to discern what has happened to his son and it is a twisted sense of justice for this cruel man.
I’m always looking for new literature to teach students. Share your Holocaust literature list below. Let me know what profound works you have taught! It’s always helpful to do social emotional learning with lessons as heavy as these. To read my blog post on social emotional learning click HERE.
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