The Holocaust. The very mention of this shameful and horrific event in our not-so-distant past causes many to buckle with untold emotion as they weep and continue to mourn for the murdered souls of their loved ones while others are angered and outraged as to how such a thing could have been allowed to happen in the first place. Others still are filled with curiosity as to what the Holocaust actually was while a very small percentage will adamantly continue to deny that the Holocaust ever happened at all.
The Holocaust was the systematic, cold-blooded persecution and murder, by the Nazi regime and its collaborators, of approximately six million Jewish men, women and children as well as the murder of approximately another five million non-Jewish gypsies, Poles, communists, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war as well as the mentally and physically disabled throughout Nazi Germany and the German-occupied territories. From 1941 to 1945, they were targeted and methodically murdered through Nazi-run concentration camps. Ghettos were established throughout Europe in which the Jewish people were confined before being shipped off to the extermination camps and their imminent deaths.
An integral part of our history, the Holocaust forms a portion of the history curriculum at most schools, with the introduction to the Holocaust usually through Anne Frank and her wartime diary, The Diary of a Young Girl. The diary, which was given to Anne on her thirteenth birthday, chronicles her life and experiences hiding with her family in some concealed rooms in the building where Anne’s father worked before the German occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War. Anne and her family were eventually captured before she and her sister were transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where they were sent to their deaths in March, 1945. Anne had just turned fifteen three months earlier.
Since the publication of Anne Frank’s diary in 1947, books about the Holocaust began to be published and soon became a subgenre known as “Holocaust literature”. Some readers and educators have scoffed and called it sensationalistic pulp fiction but quite frankly, Holocaust literature is anything but that. Be it fiction or non-fiction, Holocaust literature presents factual information in such a way that it conveys a personal experience in the face of a cataclysmic event so that it transcends the mind and touches the heart through three different avenues: remembrance, survival and courage/humanity. And nowhere are these three avenues better exemplified than in the following YA Holocaust fiction titles:
The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) hurls its protagonist – an American teenage Jewish girl of the 1980’s – back in time to the terrifying circumstances of being a young Jewish girl in a Polish shtetl in the 1940’s.
The Reader (1995) explores how post-war generations should approach the generation that took part in, or witnessed, the atrocities of the Holocaust. The story is divided into several sections and first deals with Michael Berg, a fifteen-year-old boy, who meets and begins an affair with Hanna Schmidt, a 36 year-old illiterate tram conductor. In the second part of the book, Michael is in law school and he and his group of students sit in on a war crimes trial where he’s shocked to discover that one of the defendants is none other than Hanna, who had gone on to become a former guard at Auschwitz and was now being tried for allowing 300 Jewish women, allegedly under her protection, to die in a church fire. In the third part of the book, Michael struggles over what he feels for her with what she’s accused of doing.
The Book Thief (2005) is a Holocaust story narrated by Death himself and deals with nine-year-old Liesel Meminger, living in Nazi Germany in 1939. Her mother is taken away from Liesel and her brother, and while on a train to Molching, Liesel’s brother dies. The narrator, Death, sees her for the first time.
Last Stop Klindenspiel (2014) is a post-Holocaust story that explores the fate of fifteen-year-old Katya Holberg and her family. Katya, her sister Lilly, and her mother are separated from her father, a Wehrmacht commander running one of the concentration camps, during the liberation of Poland by the Allies. Despite the war being over, hate runs deep against Katya and her family, resulting in the brutal murders of her mother and sister. Fearing for her safety, Katya’s grandmother sends her to Klindenspiel, the only circus of its kind in all of Europe, where all the performers are children but once there, Katya quickly realizes that all is not as it seems.
Arguably, Holocaust literature can and will evoke many an emotion in the reader – but the last thing anyone can ever accuse it of being is sensationalistic pulp fiction, wouldn’t you agree?