Skip to content

Holocaust Literature and Pedagogy

June 11, 2011

Social attitudes towards violence in (and about) literature for children are particularly evident in the many discussions about the teaching of the Holocaust – and discussions about Holocaust literature as a pedagogical tool.

Sarah Jordan writes that “It now is well accepted that educating children about the horrors of the Holocaust is an essential part of any curriculum.”

I suspect it is – and that it is also widely accepted to be a sensitive, profoundly political aspect of the curriculum. However, when Jordan writes that: “It is also generally agreed that, especially when teaching younger children, it is important to avoid disturbing children by inundating them with information that is graphic or too emotional for them to handle” I believe she is entering a well-worn, but still-heated, debate with her opinions too firmly in place.  As a result, the ensuing article celebrates those texts that distance the reader from the events and emotions of The Holocaust, even as they leave the reader with a sense of ‘hope’.  These texts, according to Jordan are the most “powerful educational tools” (p216).

I do recognise the restrictions on content in children’s literature (which are perhaps less present in literature for young adults), but…


Hope. This is one of the bench-marks that Jordan applies to her analysis of literature about the Holocaust.  She backs herself up by reiterating A. kertzer’s claim that: “the mark of a successful work of children’s literature in this genre (historical fiction of the Holocaust) is that ‘[B]y the end of the story, the child knows more, and what she knows, because it works within the representational limits of children’s books, still allows her to hope.'”  (p200)

I don’t agree that literature about the Holocaust should be measured pedagogically by the level of hope it leaves behind. The Holocaust and Hope; the two don’t necessarily go together, however appealing it is to think so… so why would you teach it as such?!

BUT, that said, I do think ‘hope’ is a major part of the collective narrative that surrounds this topic… and, so, a concept worth exploring and analysing…

Personalizing history and humanising inhumanity?

Jordan also assesses the literature according to its ability to personalise history;  again, quoting someone else, she asserts that “As Totten notes, ‘Outstanding literature is also capable of ‘personalizing’ this history, placing a ‘face’ on the horrendous facts and events’; literature is a mechanism by which children can face inhumanity in a very human way.” (p200)

Which is to say, ‘humanise inhumanity’? Isn’t that oxymoronic – and not in a good way?

Is there really ‘a face’ within the immense political tensions that pulled on each of the individual players during the Holocaust?

Is this not just a way of attaching blame to one or two or more individuals – and thereby detaching blame from everyone else?

Does it help us to separate ourselves from the events if we can put a face to history? 

I think it probably does, but I don’t think it helps us ‘teach the Holocaust’ – not honestly at any rate…

Authorial Strategies

In any case, Jordan takes this lens of ‘humanising hope’ and applies it to a number of texts, making some of the following observations on the way:

She sees the texts as taking one or other of these strategies to ‘help child readers identify with the protagonists; ‘child narrators and personalized stories‘, ‘allegory‘, ‘gentile protagonists‘ (protagonists who are not Jews and therefore distanced from the violence, just as a child narrator might be), ‘fantasy‘ (especially time-slip fantasy).

Jordan sees allegory as being a “relatively easy and non-threatening way to tell a story of the Holocaust to children.”  “This authorial strategy,” she writes, “seems to be popular not only because it distances the reader from the truth (and thereby makes it less disturbing) but also because a sometimes incomprehensible topic can occasionally be paralleled to a well-known story that children do understand.” (p205)  How concerning is this?! That the Holocaust should be taught by distancing the student from the truth?  I’m not saying it’s an easy topic, but surely distance can’t be a desirable measure of efficacy.  In fact, it becomes even more concerning an idea, when one puts it alongside Jordan’s assertion that “In many ways, the development of the protagonists in such [personalized] stories – their gradual understanding and growing knowledge of what is happening around them – mirrors that of young readers.”  No, I don’t think that it does.  Empathy can only go so far in the experience of violence and loss and to pretend otherwise actually borders on unethical…

The closest Jordan seems to come to acknowledging the ‘inexpressable’ quality of the Holocaust (which surely does provide an appropriate lens for analysis) is when she observes that Yolen’s Briar Rose borrows on the fairy tale, but can never end in the happy way we now expect from the fairy tale (p209).

An important message:

I think where Jordan goes against my beliefs, is when she accepts the concept of literature conveying a message effectively.  Of course, it can and does, but is there really A MESSAGE to be knowledgeably understood and conveyed didactically when discussing the events of the Holocaust.  To suggest there is ‘a message’  is perhaps to forget not only the Holcaust’s incommensurability, but also the incommensurable nature of violent conflict in general – and to suggest that a few books of fiction will help reduce this.  I realise I am responding only to Sarah Jordan’s one article and so, perhaps not representing her opinions fairly, but I see these attitudes as dangerously present in the literature that surrounds violence.

It’s that tension between ‘lest we forget’ and irrepresentability that is truly hard to negotiate.

List of books referred to by Jordan:

Kertzer, Adrienne My Mother’s Voice

Pausewang, Gudrun, The Final Journey

Oriev, Uri The Island on Bird Street

Bunting, Eve Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust

Spiegelman, Art Maus: A Survivor’s Tale

Yolen, Jane Briar Rose

Orlev, Uri The Man From the Other Side

Lowry, Lois Number the Stars

Richter, Hans Peter Friedrich

Yolen, Jane The Devil’s Arithmetic

Nolan, Han If I Should Die Before I Wake

Ref: Sarah Jordan “Educating without overwhelming: authorial strategies in Children’s Holocaust Literature” Children’s Literature in Education. 35(3)2004; 199-218

Historical complexity

A book I would really like to read at some point, and which might flesh out my difficulties with Sarah Jordan’s approach more clearly is:

Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature, by Lydia Kokkola (New York and London: Routledge, 2003)

Written almost a decade ago, this book cannot be working with current approaches in Holocaust studies, but, it is still of interest and according to Naomi Sokoloff, this book “takes as its point of departure problems of representation, a major topic in Holocaust studies.” (p443) The opening chapter, she explains, puts forward questions like:

How can imaginative writing grapple with unimaginable catastrophe?

What role, if any, can fantasy and humor play in the fictional treatment of the Holocaust?

Must mimetic fidelity be the sole ideal for narrative, lest any deviation from documented fact lead to Holocaust denial?  

Kokkola is, apparently, “fierce in condemning texts that she believes distort the historical past, such as Anne Holms’s I am David.”  “To her mind,” Sokoloff explains, “his freedom is too easily won; in this fictional world, she says, borders are too easily crossed, food is too abundant, help too forthcoming – all of which may give children the mistaken impression that perhaps the suffering of the Holocaust victims really wasn’t so bad after all.” (p444)

Sokoloff makes the point (and perhaps one that is missing in Jordan’s article) that “a literary work is simply not the same as a history textbook, and if teachers do not recognize this point, they are not doing their jobs.”

I agree – and this is where it gets interesting! When you get into questions of representation, you are getting into the ethics of the problem.  Again Kokkola’s book may be of interest in that “she is concerned about the eroticizing of the Holocaust, a disquieting phenomenon she finds present even in children’s literature.  Most fundamentally, like many critics before her, she is troubled by the aesthetic pleasure that may accompany literary treatment of atrocity.” (p445, Sokoloff)

Children’s Literature vs Adult Literature

So, with one final provocation (taken from Sokoloff’s review of Kokkola), I will leave this topic for another time:

“it is worth asking if children’s literature differs significantly from adult literature in these matters.  Do children simply need more exposure to facts before it is healthy for them to explore imaginative art?”

(p447, Sokoloff)

Ref: Naomi Sokoloff reviewed Kokkola’s book but, once again, I don’t have the reference… (I imagine it is in some issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, given that it is a Project Muse printout – sorry, don’t know…)


Comments are closed.