….if understanding were possible. Today, 27 January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. When the Red Army arrived at the gates of this most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps, they saw for the first time the horrors that it held. It stands today as a memorial; a stark reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings in the name of…I’m still not sure. In my mind, it must be in the name of some kind of insanity. We need to understand what can happen. Our children need to know what happened in those dark times and that we must not let happen again. There have been a lot of books written for young people telling the stories. Here are a few of my recommendations that will keep the memories alive and help our children to understand.
Of course, we must begin with The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. These writings taken from the diary of Anne Frank while she was in hiding for two years with her family during the German occupation of the Netherlands begin in June 1942 and documents daily life; the ever-present threat, the small joys, the comfort she found in her family and friends…all the thoughts and feelings of a young girl in these unimaginable circumstances. The Frank family was captured in 1944, and Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 of typhus. Her diary was retrieved and placed back in the hands of her only surviving family member, her father.
For more biographical fare, we turn to Tomi: Tomi Reichenthals’ Holocaust Story by Eithne Massey. Tomi grew up in a small village with friendly neighbours, a happy family and many friends. But things changed. First Tomi was told he couldn’t play with some of his friends any more and then the police began to take away his friends and his family. By age 9, he was on the run in fear of his life. Soon came the day when he was taken, with many others, to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In this biographical novel, Tomi tells his story, in hope that it will never happen again.
When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit is a semi-autobiographical novel by Judith Kerr. It is the story of what happened to one Jewish family; how they had to flee Germany before World War 2 broke out; how they were secreted away by their mother, running from place to place to escape a horrific fate. Told from the perspective of Anna, a nine-year-old girl, it closely mirrors the youth of Judith Kerr herself. This and the 2 sequels give a vivid picture of the life of, not just one child, but the fate of many as Hitler moved across Europe, changing their worlds and lives forever.
Released just the other day, Saving Hanno: A Refugee Boy and His Dog by Miriam Halahmy is a beautiful, heartfelt book for younger readers. Based on a character from her previous, The Emergency Zoo, it tells the story of 9-year-old Rudi, a happy normal boy with a loving family forced to leave his home on the Kindertransport to England. But he won’t go without his beloved dachshund, Hanno. But in England, with a German invasion imminent, thousands of pets are being put to sleep. He joins a group of children who vow to save all the pets they can find, hiding them away in a make-shift “emergency zoo.” Rudi and his new friends set out on a dangerous journey to find a safe haven for Hanno and the other animals.
A personal favourite, Letters From the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll is a gripping historical mystery. After months of bombing raids in London, 12-year-old Olive and her little brother are evacuated to the Devon coast. Mr Ephraim, the local lighthouse keeper is the only person with beds to spare, but he’s not used to company. Trying to be helpful, Olive becomes his post-girl, carrying messages to the villagers. But Olive has a secret. Her older sister Sukie went missing in an air raid, and she must discover what happened to her. And then she finds a strange coded note which seems to link Sukie to Devon, and to something dark and impossibly dangerous. While a cracking adventure, it rings with an astounding amount of truth.
Once by Morris Gleitzman tells us the story of Felix. For 3 years and 8 months, he has lived in a convent orphanage high in the mountains of Poland. But Felix is different from the other orphans. He is convinced that his parents are still alive and will return to get him one day. When the Nazis arrive at the orphanage and burn all the nuns’ books, Felix escapes the orphanage and begins the dangerous journey through occupied Poland to find his parents. Intense, stunning and one everyone should read.
The Winter Horses by Philip Kerr is a WW2 story with a powerful twist. Max is the keeper of a wildlife preserve who has learned to keep secrets and deal with the Nazi soldiers. One of the secrets is the young girl, Kalinka. She has lost her home, family, possessions; everything but her life and is in hiding on the wildlife preserve and has gained a deep friendship with the wild, rare Przewalki’s Horses who wander there. But, a Nazi campaign of extermination in search of perfection has eliminated all but the last two. Kalinka embarks on an epic, treacherous journey across the harsh Ukrainian landscape to save the horses…and herself.
Flight by Vanessa Harbour is another gripping, unusual novel; full of heart and insight. In 1945 Austria, young Jakob is hiding out, sheltered on Herr Engels’ rural estate after losing his home to the Nazis. There, he tends the Lipizanner stallions, also hidden there. Herr Engel knows that Hitler wants these beautiful horses for his own. He also knows that if the Nazis’ find Jakob, it means certain death. When a German officer comes looking for both, the horses and Jakob must steal away across the Austrian Alps. They are joined by a young Roma girl, Kizzy who is running for reasons of her own.
I will end with Number the Stars by Lois Lowry; a most poignant book that brings the past to life. 1943 Copenhagen; life is increasingly complicated for 10-year-old Annemarie. The Nazi occupation brought with it curfews, food-shortages and soldiers on every street. As difficult as it is for her, it is even more so for her best-friend, Ellen. The Nazis are planning to arrest all the Danish Jews and will come at any moment. Ellens’ life is in certain danger. Annemarie musters all her courage to commit one selfless act; she will help stage a daring and dangerous escape. A contemporary classic.
So many more books are available that paint a vivid picture of the this horrific time, embedding in children and adults alike a sense of the urgency of remembering, of listening and of why this kind of horrible, inhuman act must never happen again. But they also nurture a sense of courage, conscience, strength and determination; a sense of the best of human spirit and of hope…if only we will allow it.