Happy-ever-after is a fairy-tale notion, not history.
July 16, 2018 11:09 AM   Subscribe

Ruth Franklin writes about children's Holocaust literature for the New Yorker: There’s something essential about the interactions among generations in the stories we tell about the Holocaust ... a younger person literally bears witness to the stories of an older generation—either by experiencing them herself, as Hannah does, or by listening to the testimony of survivors. And the reader, by imagining herself in the place of the main character, can vicariously bear witness, too. If there’s a consolation in reading these books, that’s where it can be found... “Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory.” We may emerge from these books without grasping the true horror of their stories. But at least we’ve learned how to listen to them.
posted by ChuraChura (10 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I read those two Jane Yolen books over and over as a (Jewish) child. Recently I was trying to explain them to a friend to see if she thought her older daughter might be ready for the Devil's Arithmetic, but I couldn't finish explaining the plot because I kept bursting into tears.

Anyway, this is a GREAT essay, thank you for sharing it.
posted by leesh at 12:32 PM on July 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have Briar Rose on my shelf, waiting to be re-read. I read it about 20-25 years ago, as a young-mid teen - and my memories of the details have faded, but I remember it as otherworldly, important and heavy - which describes the Holocaust pretty well.

Maybe I underestimate children, but I don't think I would give a child something like Elie Wiesel's Night to read - it's too much pain. I could barely handle it at 18. I knew from reading the softened stories even before Briar Rose that the vast majority of the people at the camps did not survive. I didn't know about the extent of the horror, but I knew what demonizing people, creating them into 'the other', could lead to.

Maybe every adult needs to really confront the inhumanity we are capable of. For children, maybe the lessons of The Diary of Anne Frank are the most important: that this bright, fun person was killed. And almost all of her family was killed. Everyone you got to know through her words died too soon, and only for who they were.
posted by jb at 2:08 PM on July 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

Those who died in the camps left no testimonies

The last episode of the PBS/BBC art history series, Civilizations, What is Art Good For?, starts off by visiting the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, which displays children's art from Terezín ghetto, 1942-1945.

Those children, like Jane Yolen, used fantasy tropes - flight, quite often - when given the opportunity to express themselves in a place of horror. The synagogue displays the name of the children with each piece, and whether they survived or, far more commonly, were murdered at Auschwitz. Some victims of the camps left precious, heart-rending testimony of their too-brief lives, in their signed works of art.
posted by palindromic at 2:28 PM on July 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Expected the article to at least mention Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche, from 1985, but no. Not as well-read as it should be, IMO.
posted by Rash at 2:40 PM on July 16, 2018

NIght is required summer reading for incoming 10th graders at my kid's school, and a quick scan shows that it is on reading lists around the country for both middle and high schoolers.
posted by mogget at 3:52 PM on July 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Expected the article to at least mention Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche, from 1985, but no. Not as well-read as it should be, IMO.

All I know of that book is from the reviews, but from the description it's like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: it's a Holocaust story by a non-Jew, centering the experience of a non-Jew, and which creates an imaginary scenario in which a compassionate non-Jew gets to be a hero by helping Jews and dying tragically.

I feel pretty angry about it, actually.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:57 PM on July 16, 2018 [9 favorites]

Reading this it occurs to me that nobody posted an obit thread for Claude Lanzmann. I don't personally feel equipped to do so, but seems like the sort of passing we'd note.

Re: Holocaust lit for children, I wish that tales of loss were paired with works showcasing European Jews' rich cultural history. Couldn't we make time for some Yiddishkayt? I was lucky enough to have a book of "Tales of Chelm."
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 6:41 PM on July 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Cichlid Ceilidh, I'm not sure the Holocaust left enough cultural continuity among Central European Jews to pass much on. The century leading up to it had already been tremendously disruptive, but what was left after most old people were murdered and their children turned into refugees? Pretty much anything Jewish from the interwar era was annihilated, so we only have meaningful stories from before that time and stories of the Holocaust itself. Anything from the in-between times is overshadowed by what came after.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:42 PM on July 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

There is this upcoming anthology of recently translated Yiddish folktales that looks good (sorry for the incorrect link last time I posted this!).
posted by leesh at 5:49 AM on July 17, 2018

I read The Devil's Arithmetic I guess around the time that it came out. It seems like there were a number of Holocaust books for kids at that time, including Lois Lowry's Number the Stars (mentioned briefly in the article but erroneously named as a post-Boyne book--it was published in the late 80s). In addition to Anne Frank, I have very clear memories of reading Johanna Reiss's The Upstairs Room several times as a kid. It won the Newberry Award in 1973. I was shocked just now to discover that it was autobiographical. Because she got to grow up and wrote it later, it is much more of a book than Anne Frank's. I highly recommend it.

Thinking about it now, the conceit of The Devil's Arithmetic is a lot like what Octavia Butler did for the slave narrative in Kindred (published in 1979).
posted by hydropsyche at 1:13 PM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

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