How does one possibly begin to tell their children about the Holocaust? It is a daunting subject, but one we must never forget. One tool at parents’ and educators’ disposal is good children’s books about the Holocaust and the Jewish experience of World War II.
Much has been written about how and when to educate children about the horrors of the Holocaust. I shall point you to the following resources:
- United States Holocaust Museum – age appropriate education
- Fear Factor – on reading books about the Holocaust
When reading books with Jewish characters, please, don’t just read books about the Holocaust. Yes, the Holocaust must be remembered, but it is not the only event which defines Jewish identity and experience! For every book about the Holocaust you read to your kids, read a bunch of books with Jewish characters that are not about World War II! We have two lists to get you started:
Another excellent resource for good Jewish children’s books is Tablet Magazine’s children’s literature section.
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I personally believe it is not necessary to teach very young kids about the Holocaust. Instead, read them books that teach kids how to have an anti-bias mindset, and picture books that encourage positive community building. When children are ready, here are three excellent books to start with.
Nicky and Vera
by Peter Sís
Sís’ brilliant and detailed illustrations add an evocative emotional layer to his story of Nicholas Winton, a German-Jewish man living in England who organized the rescue of 699 Jewish children in 1938. Vera was one of those children whose parents decided to send her away on the transport. Nicky’s heroism didn’t come out into the open until his wife revealed it to the public 50 years later. A stunning book, both visually and emotionally. Ages 7 and up.
I Will Come Back for You: A Family in Hiding During World War II
by Marisabina Russo
Find it: Amazon
Russo based this story on her own family’s experience. Nonna’s granddaughter loves her Nonna’s charm bracelet, from which hangs a number of charms such as a ship, bicycle, a piano, and more. Nonna uses the charms to tell her granddaughter stories about her past, when her family lived in Rome. First she tells about happy times, but eventually she shares her experience going into hiding and the kindness of people who kept her safe. In the end notes, Russo includes photos of her family and addresses how and why she fictionalized her family’s story. Ages 7 and up.
The Whispering Town
by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Based on a true story, this testament to community is the inspiring tale of how one town Nazi-occupied Denmark saved the lives of a Jewish mother and son. Anett’s family had been hiding the pair in their cellar, but in order to get them through the town to a boat headed to Sweden, the whole town must take a risk and come together. Ages 7 and up.
Middle Grade Books
Many of these children’s novels about the legacy of the Holocaust are inspired by true stories.
Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust
by Loïc Dauvillier, Greg Salsedo, and Marc Lizano.
This is an extraordinarily touching book, and a very child-appropriate tale of the Holocaust. Dounia tells her granddaughter her experience of being hidden during WWWII in France when her parents were taken to concentration camps. The brilliance of this book is we hear and see the story from the viewpoint of both child and grandparent, with key points told through illustrations that compel the reader to ask more questions and analyze for themselves what is happening. Ages 8 and up.
Number the Stars
by Lois Lowry
This is a classic and moving novel by Lois Lowry, set during World War II. Finding age appropriate books about tough subjects like this one is a boon to parents and educators. In 1943 Denmark, 10 year old Annemarie and her family risk their lives to help their Jewish friends escape the Nazis. Ages 8 and up.
Adam and Thomas
by Aharon Appelfeld
Find it: Amazon
This story of two Jewish boys who hide in the forest is incredibly moving. The boys have been sent into the forest by their mothers. They build a nest in the tree and when their supplies run out, they start to forage for food. A peasant girl leaves them food and Adam’s dog Miro finds them deep in the forest with a message from his mother. The war intrudes into the forest in small ways when people pass though. Everyone tells them to stay in the forest and hide. When winter comes the struggle to survive becomes more urgent. The narrative style is quiet, almost dreamlike and the narration switches between the two boys’ viewpoints as they learn valuable lessons from each other. (Originally published in Hebrew) Ages 9 and up.
Letters from Cuba
by Ruth Behar
I could not stop turning the pages of this excellent epistolary novel. In 1938, Esther leaves her mother and brother in Poland and joins her father in Cuba. Esther tells her story in a series of letters to her sister. Making the journey by herself, as a Jewish refugee, Esther looks forward to her new home. Once in Cuba, she falls in love with the island and her neighbors. Her father has been working as a peddler, but Esther is a talented seamstress and finds success selling sought after dresses so that she and her father are finally able to send for the rest of the family. Behar based the book on the story of her grandmother and introduces readers to an incredibly diverse population. Ages 9 and up.
by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer
Shirli loves acting and singing. She gets a part in the school production of Fiddler on the Roof, and even though it is not the role she wanted, she throws herself into it. Shirli regularly visits her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. One day, Shirli finds a violin in his attic, which she thinks is odd, as she understands her grandfather never wants to listen music. Slowly, Shirli learns her grandfather’s dark story, and when the musical production loses its director, Shirli’s grandfather takes up his violin once again. The action of this story takes place in the wake of 9/11 and the characters reflect upon the current state of racial and religious prejudice in their community. Ages 9 and up. I also recommend Kacer’s book, Masters of Silence.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
by Judith Kerr
Kerr based this book on her own experience leaving Nazi Germany and living in Switzerland and France, before finally heading for England. As a young Jewish girl, Anna is aware that something unsettling is happening in her home country, and her father’s livelihood is threatened, but she doesn’t quite understand the danger Hitler poses. While in Zurich and Paris, young Anna must learn how to navigate new schools and cultures, make new friends and accept that her family life is irrevocably changed. Through it all, Anna hangs on to the idea that as long as their family is together, that is all that matters. Ages 8 and up.
The following titles include memoirs, a diary and an excellent in-depth look at some of the children who survived.
My Survival : A Girl on Schindler’s List, a Memoir
by Rena Finder and Joshua M. Greene
Confession: I have never been able to watch the movie, Schindler’s List. I find harrowing stories about the Holocaust much too difficult to approach through the film medium, and instead look to books. I was unable to put down Finder’s memoir about her experience as as a girl on Schindler’s list. Rena unflinchingly describes life in a Jewish family during the invasion of Poland, the effect of anti-Jewish laws on the population, the horrors of slave labor, and the uncertainty of survival, even as the war neared its end. Unforgettable. Ages 11 and up.
Chance: Escape from the Holocaust
by Uri Shulevitz
Shulevitz’s remarkable work will be enjoyed by children, teens and adults, alike. I was mesmerized by his story and the wonderful illustrations. Born in Poland, Schulevitz tells the story of his family’s flight from the invading German army, first to the Soviet Union, then to Turkestan and Paris. He describes the anti-Semitism, the crippling poverty and hunger he experienced, but his narrative is still filled with humor. A strong thread throughout is Schulevitz’s love of drawing and his mother’s storytelling. Ages 10 and up. I highly recommend reading his picture book, How I Learned Geography, as is father’s map makes an important cameo in Chance. Ages 9 and up.
The Diary of a Young Girl
by Anne Frank
You do not need me to introduce this life-changing book. Anne Frank’s first hand account of her life in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands is essential reading for every person. Ages 11 and up.
We Had to Be Brave
by Deborah Hopkinson
Hopkinson’s expertly crafted book about the Kindertransport combines first person narratives, historical details and commentary to present readers with a much-needed history of the children who escaped Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport, an organized rescue operation that helped Jewish children reach safety in Great Britain. Extensive end notes include a timeline of events, glossary, and further resources. Hopkinson’s companion book, We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance is also a must read. Ages 10 and up.