Teaching the Holocaust to Children and Teens

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.



Clara’s War by Clara Kramer

Upon the Head of a Goat by Aranka Siegel

Night by Elie Wiesel


Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

53 responses to “Teaching the Holocaust to Children and Teens

  1. Reblogged this on idealisticrebel and commented:
    I also read Holocaust memoirs. As a child I started with The Diary of Ann Frank. My grandfather encouraged me never to forget or it would happen again.so I read and read. I would recommend A Leap Into the Darkness. I will look into the ones you mentioned. Hugs, Barbara

    • Luanne

      Thank you so much, Barbara, for the reblog and also for mentioning Anne Frank’s diary! I didn’t “count” it as a memoir because it’s a diary and wasn’t shaped in its final form by Anne, but honestly, the way it WAS shaped does make it a memoir of sorts. As for “A Leap into the Darkness,” I’ve just put it on my list! It sounds fabulous!! And what’s more it’s an account by a guy, which is more difficult to come by! Thank you so much for telling me about it! BTW, I love your blog.

  2. What a good question. ON first blush I think it is important to have the facts to support the memory. On the other hand, were I to write the story of my father there would be an element of fantasy because he was twisted history to suit his story. Oh, my dear Luanne, you’ve got my juices flowin’ this mornin’! Thanks.

    I’ll pass this list on to my oldest daughter who, although is much older than your recommended age, has read many Holocaust memoirs.

    • Luanne

      Oooh, I’m so glad. What I’ve read of your parents’ story is fascinating, and I think that (as long as the reader understands) adding an element of fantasy to mimic your father’s stories would be fabulous! Yes, if your dd hasn’t read this one, she definitely should!

  3. When I was young, I remember reading The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch woman who was imprisoned with her family for hiding Jews during the war. It was an inspiring story, but had such a strong religious dogma, that it was distracting. I think memoirs of this nature, like most memoirs rely heavily on the narrator’s voice.
    When it comes to reading about the Holocaust, I tend to veer from memoirs towards documentary novels like Babi Yar by Anatoly Kuznetsov or The Wall by John Hersey. Of course, documentary novels have their own pitfalls.

    • Luanne

      I actually have two copies of ten Boom’s book. Don’t ask me how that happened. It’s an amazing story. I think the religious aspect of the book is important for her particular story because it is what motivated her to risk her life the way she did. It would be dishonest to take that out of her story. But sometimes it does come off as very didactic, which is something that readers often bristle at, I think. I started out reading about the Holocaust in novels. The pivotal one for me was Leon Uris’ “Mila 18.” I was in high school and it was my favorite novel for several years. The most disturbing and amazing book about the Holocaust I ever read, though, was Ilona Karmel’s “An Estate of Memory.” It’s a novel, but based on her experiences. There is only one Amazon review and it’s kind of crummy. But this book, to paraphrase Dickinson, blew the TOP OF MY HEAD off. Seriously. I felt as if I had fallen into the book. I had a hard time getting out of it.

  4. Reblogged on “It Is What It Is” ….. always felt a connection to this period in time! TY for posting …. Hugs!!

    • Luanne

      Dr. Rex, than you so much for the reblog! Yes, I guess I have too since I have devoured so many books about the Holocaust and the war.

  5. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Good information to know …. This should never be forgotten!!

  6. Reblogged this on Ace Worldwide Goods & Services and commented:

  7. I think research should be involved in memoir where appropriate. Whenever events can be corroborated, they should. Even if a writer’s memory doesn’t match up with exactly what happened, that’s rife for exploration. Why the mismatch? Why does the writer remember it differently? That can result in some rich discovery on the page.

    • Luanne

      Rachel, I’m so glad you mentioned this: that any discrepancy is “rife for exploration.” Yes, so true! It’s when we dig deeper into our own stories that we learn more about ourselves and our stories become richer. I have wondered about the book above: why did all the other dates match up and not the crucial one? I wonder if she decided to keep it the way she remembered it on purpose.

  8. This is another to add to my list!

  9. I like a combination of memory and research. However, I have found that research materials can contain errors, so research often requires more research. Here’s an example. Someone I worked with on a biography participated in an airshow in Harlingen, Texas. It was reported in a prior printed interview as Arlington, Texas. More research revealed that many airshows have occurred in Harlingen, and there was more corroborating evidence that the airshow in question really did occur in Harlingen. So my advice is to dig and dig some more.

    • Luanne

      WJ, thank you so much for sharing this example. You’ve made such a good point. It shows how you had to use your detective skills to get to the correct information. So much “research” today is superficial internet searching , also, which is another problem. As far as how memory and research intersection, when I see an old photo, even of a product from my childhood, it spurs my memory to be not only more accurate but more complete. I think research acts as a way to prime the pump that brings forth memories.

  10. I would hope the historical events have been corroborated by research, but I guess we can’t always assume that’s the case. I’m impressed by your student’s discovery. You taught him well!

    • Luanne

      Jill, I can’t take any credit for his work. His imagination and curiosity were lit and he went with it! It was such a wonderful experience for the whole class to see how he worked with the book.

  11. Great book! Thanks for your post.

  12. Ian

    As you know, Luanne, this has become a subject close to home for me. Have you seen the graphic novels by Eric Heuvel, such as The Family Secret? http://www.amazon.com/Family-Secret-Eric-Heuvel/dp/0374422656/ref=la_B0027IFWG0_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392660505&sr=1-1

    I picked this up in my local library one day, and was excited to see my ten-year old son start reading it out of curiosity. The books present a typical Dutch experience of the holocaust in an accurate, but gentle way to entice a generation wholly new to what happened.

    • Luanne

      Ian, I’ll have to check this out. I haven’t read many graphic novels. They’ve become a much bigger thing since i stopped teaching. Sorry, but I want to make sure: in your 2nd paragraph are you talking about the graphic novel or are you talking about the Reiss book? I am wondering because a big issue in children’s literature is always, what will attract the boys to reading? And a lot of the Holocaust memoirs were written by women about their childhoods.

      • Ian

        Yes–it was the Eric Heuvel graphic novel. I think my son thought it looked a lot like TinTin, so he didn’t realize he was reading Holocaust history until he was already engaged in it…
        As you say, much of this literature is written by women about their childhoods, but the author uses this to his advantage: the teenage boy in the novel discovers all of these WWII artifacts when cleaning out his Oma’s attic, so it becomes an exciting mystery of stumbling upon a “family secret”.
        They are fictional, but the stories represent a very common Dutch experience of having friend or relatives who were “disappeared”.

        • Luanne

          That’s why a book like the one you talk about is so important–so that boys read about the Holocaust (and other topics) as well. I’m not sure why so many of the memoirs are written by females . . . . It sounds like a really exciting read, too.
          I added to the above post a link to your current piece on your mother because it’s a perfect fit.

          • Ian

            Thanks again! I also just realized I never answered your question about a tight correlation between memoir and historical accuracy. Personally, I prefer when they are in synch for actual memoir; I would classify writing that deviates from the actual history as historical fiction.

            • Luanne

              Even if it’s the way a person remembers it, and he’s writing his own personal story? I guess my biggest concern about doing that is that we all learn history by reading books, so if the information is incorrect, we are reading it as if it’s true if it’s called a memoir.

              • Ian

                Good point. I wouldn’t really count “honest” deviations if it’s how the writer remembered the events. I think I also read in another comment here that it would be interesting to explore the reasons for the deviations. That might even put the “official” history in a new light.

              • Luanne

                Yeah, Rachel’s point was really thoughtful. And then did you read what Ellen wrote about the error she made? That’s a fascinating psychology journey, really.

  13. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    Once, in writing an essay, I discovered a detail of a memory of mine was incorrect. The detail was important to how I perceived the event. So I used an endnote (boring, I know) to tell the reader this detail was inaccurate but what I believed at the time. I think this gave the reader even more information about who I was/how I saw things at the time of the story.
    I have really enjoyed this series on memoirs—it’s taking me back to a genre I loved and have been away from for a while.

    • Luanne

      Oh wow, Ellen! Did you discover the error after you were so far into the piece that you couldn’t go back, so to speak? Do you ever have different memories than other people–friends or family members? In my family I seem to be the one with the most memories of the early days, but my husband has memories since we’ve been married (for many years now haha) that I can’t even recall.
      So glad the series is taking you back to a good place :).

      • Ellen Morris Prewitt

        The essay was an excerpt from my memoir, which I wrote by interviewing my mother and going to original source documents. This particular chapter was about a trip I took in the early 2000s; while on the trip, I believed the woman who was with my dad when he died in 1961 had been a beauty queen. After returning and writing the piece, my research (and my mother) showed this wasn’t the case. I thought the beauty queen appellation was important to my state of mind while on the trip, so I wanted to leave it in and also tell the reader it wasn’t correct. I was lucky that River Teeth, which published the essay, let me do this in an endnote. In writing the memoir and interviewing family members and friends of my dad and researching, I came to understand how very subjective memory is, and how strong are the stories we tell ourselves. (And my husband says I can remember every word he’s ever said!)

        • Luanne

          Does River Teeth have an online archives where I could find this piece or was it strictly print? Re your husband hahaha! That’s our job as spouses–to remember everything they say so that we can recite it back to them ;).

          • Ellen Morris Prewitt

            You are so sweet to ask. It was published in 2004 before everything was online, and I’ve never found anything other than a sample opening page (which always reminds me I get the date of my dad’s death wrong—he died in 1960 . . .).

            • Luanne

              Have you ever heard of journals that re-publish pieces? I think I read that there is at least one that does that–the idea being that once you publish in a print lit mag the piece is gone forever once it fades away.

  14. This was so wonderful of you to share and I had no idea you have so many connections… too. Thanks Luanne, for including me amongst such wonderful people in your community of bloggers! I hope to read your own memoir one day, and say, “I knew her when…” Smile! Robin

    • Luanne

      Robin, they ARE great, aren’t they?! All so smart and interesting and warm-hearted! Re my memoir haha. At the rate I’m going you’ll never get a chance to say it! Winter has been tough for me in terms of time and energy–way too much business and personal going on. I hope spring will give me some writing time. Thanks for being part of my community, Robin :).

    • I hope to remain your friend, despite your climb up the ladder to success in writing a memoir! Now, just because this winter has ‘set you back’ doesn’t mean you won’t get this finished, Luanne. It will be like that winner of a short story you wrote! I remember it, the girl on the plane and her need to talk, your listening and the way you told it stuck with me, Luanne! That shows excellent writing skills! Smiles, Robin

  15. I will try to find this book. I was Germany when the first movie came out about the Death camps of WW2 in 1976. I watched the young German’s cry. Their history books did not teach. Kids must know true history and maybe the next generation will desire peace over war and separation. My favorite book I have read many times is Kosinski “Painted bird.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts on a important topic.

    • Luanne

      John, that sounds very disturbing! Kosinski is another good one. Thank you so much for sharing your story here. The more we share and remember, the less chance there is of it happening again.

  16. The Diary of Anne Frank is the one book I recall most from my youth. A more recent book, a historical thriller based on the author’s father who was actually a journalist and a spy, Corridor of Darkness by Patrick O’Bryon, is my most recent read. It’s not a memoir but a fiction piece. It is so very accurate in history and detail that it seems a colorful non-fiction read. There is so much about history that kids don’t get in school nowadays. Everyone is trying to be so politically correct not to offend anyone to the point where people remain clueless about the atrocities that we have prevailed against.

    • Luanne

      Yes, Anne’s diary is so memorable. What is unique about it, I think, is that it’s a book that puts us completely in her world, and yet it’s not the world of the concentration camps, etc. Readers get a fuller image by all the surrounding material about Anne. For instance, when the book is taught in schools, sometimes it’s accompanied by documentaries, etc. Then readers learn about Anne’s experience in the camps.
      Good point about us trying to whitewash so we don’t offend.
      I taught a book about the Korean War, written by a woman who was a young Korean girl at that time. It shows the reality of how the Japanese soldiers treated the Koreans (G rated for child readers), and some students complained it wasn’t a nice view of the Japanese.

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  18. Just leaving a comment here to let you know that I will “share” this post on my Facebook account and hope that my youngest nephew has time to read it. He teaches history (I think middle or junior high) and has had a particular interest in teaching about the Holocaust for many years. Excellent post, Luanne. As far as using research in memoir, I think when it comes to dates, actual and verifiable events, it’s a good thing to fairly accurate, even if it involves a bit of research. If I write a memoir about my maternal grandfather, who I barely remember, I’ll still want to get the dates of when I saw him accurate enough to help keep me grounded in reality (at least) 🙂

    • Luanne

      That makes a lot of sense about writing about your grandmother and the necessity of some research.
      Thank you so much for sharing this book with your nephew! I am so glad to hear that he teaches the Holocaust! So important to never forget!

  19. Surprise! Here’s the serious side of the Carolina Yankee, daughter of a Holocaust survivor.

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