One section of my memoir bookshelf is devoted to books by Holocaust survivors. I read these books years ago, long before I started to think about memoir as a genre.
I’ve read Holocaust memoirs written for children and ones written for adults. Most of these memoir writers survived the war by hiding with non-Jews. My favorite children’s Holocaust memoir is Johanna Reiss’s The Upstairs Room (1972).
I used to teach The Upstairs Room, a 1973 Newbery Honor Book, in some of my children’s literature classes. One of my students was so taken with the history of the story that he constructed a timeline, juxtaposing historical dates with personal events from the story. What he discovered was that the historical dates were depicted accurately by Reiss in all cases except that the first bombing raid by Americans on Germany at Wilhelmshaven occurred on January 27, 1943; Reiss’ book tells of hearing planes flying overhead to bomb Germany for the first time sometime after February 2. The discrepancy is not what is amazing; as the student pointed out in class, that Reiss would remember these dates thirty years later seems impossible. What seems likely is that she took trouble with her research to augment her memory.
This book teaches me that memory is the most important part of history, but that it needs to be supported with historical research to assure accuracy in a memoir–particularly, when a memoir has as much at stake in historical terms as a Holocaust story.
From the first time I read the book (and I’ve read it many times), I bonded closely with Annie, the first person narrator. The story begins in 1938 when the protagonist Annie de Leeuw (Johanna’s name as a child) is six years old and just beginning to hear about the problems that Hitler is bringing to her world.
Four years later, in late summer 1942, Annie and her older sister Sini go into hiding with a non-Jewish Dutch family, the Oostervelds. Annie and Sini are cared for by Dientje, Opoe, and particularly by Johan Oosterveld, who is a loving man of strong character. Their father and oldest sister Rachel hide elsewhere during the war. Their mother died in the hospital of kidney disease just after they went into hiding.
The girls live in an upstairs room (hence, the title), but they have to crawl into the back of a closet when anyone else comes near the house. Imagine what happens when the Nazis decide to make the house their headquarters . . . .
This book is for 5th to 8th graders, but a good reader that is mature could read it when a little younger. And you can’t be too old for this book.
When you read a memoir do you expect that the memories that correspond with historical events have been corroborated by research? Or do you expect a memoir to tell the story only as the writer remembers it?
Here is a belated addition to this post: Ian at the blog ReSearching MySelf is writing a series about this very subject, based on his knowledge and research of his mother’s life in the Netherlands during the war. Find his most recent post here.
A FEW HOLOCAUST MEMOIRS FOR TEENS
Clara’s War by Clara Kramer
Upon the Head of a Goat by Aranka Siegel
Night by Elie Wiesel