Thursday, January 17, 2013

Choosing the best instructional books for young readers

A friend and I were recently discussing Holocaust books for young adults. During our conversation, she mentioned The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. I told her that I dislike The Devil’s Arithmetic. In fact, I wish that my son’s middle school did not offer it as an option for literature circles. Of course my friend asked me why I felt this way. It occurred to me that my answer might make a good blog entry.

To begin, let me state that there are other of Yolen’s books that I enjoy and believe are worth teaching. The Devil’s Arithmetic just isn’t one of them. The novel is an odd combination of historical fiction and fantasy that tells the story of a Jewish girl named Hannah. At the start of the novel as her family shares stories during a Seder meal, Hannah feels the ennui typical of teenagers. During the evening, Hannah opens the door of her home and is transported back in time to 1942 Poland. The reader follows Hannah through the remainder of the novel as she attempts to survive as a Jew under Nazi occupation. Absurd premise? I thought so. Reading the book didn’t sway my opinion.

I wouldn’t stop a young person from choosing The Devil’s Arithmetic for pleasure reading, even though I think there are better choices. My primary objection to the book stems from the fact that some schools choose it for instruction; this lends legitimacy to the novel it doesn’t deserve. The time-travel element of The Devil’s Arithmetic s is contrived and trivializes the subject. The Holocaust and fantasy do not mix well.

For upper elementary readers, Lois Lowry’s novel Number the Stars is a fine choice. Generally speaking, however, my position is that there are so many excellent Holocaust memoirs, biographies, and non-fiction options, I simply don’t see why a novel is necessary or justified as an instructional choice. A sampling of my non-fiction favorites for grades 7-9 are listed below. I invite you to respond to this blog with suggestions of your own favorite books for teaching the Holocaust to secondary students.

Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood by Nechama Tec
This is the true story of how eleven-year-old Nechama and her family were hidden by Polish Christians. Because Nechama could most easily “pass” as Christian, she was sent out to sell bread to help support her family. This is a suspenseful story that illustrates the dangers for Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland and the conflicting motivations of Poles who chose to help their Jewish neighbors.

Behind the Secret Window: A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood During World War Two by Nelly S. Toll
Nelly was only eight-years-old in 1943 when she and her mother went into hiding with a Polish couple. To keep Nelly occupied and quiet during the long and boring days, she was supplied with materials to paint and keep a diary. Twenty-nine of these childhood paintings illustrate this memoir.

Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan
I don’t feel that the Holocaust should be taught to students as young as sixth grade. If your school’s curriculum mandates that instruction begin at that age, this book would be a good choice. The book tells the story of the Blumenthall family and features two sections of historical photos, family photos, and photos of family documents. The Blumenthals are German Jews. Like Anne Frank’s family, they sense danger when Hitler comes to power and emigrate to the Netherlands. Eventually, of course, they are trapped. This is a “happy” Holocaust book in the sense that all four family members manage to stay together throughout their ordeal and survive to liberation. The story follows the family members through their resettlement to life in the United States. There is a companion video called Marion’s Triumph.

Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren
This book is a favorite because it tells the story of Jack Mandelbaum, a Kansas City area Holocaust survivor and a co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. The award-winning author, Andrea Warren, lives in Prairie Village, Kansas. Jack endured several slave labor camps and the loss of almost all of his family members. However, he does not lose his humanity. His love of people suffuses the text and makes it a wonderful choice for middle schoolers. Jack’s testimony is available on video from MCHE.

All But My Life: A Memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein
A striking characteristic of this memoir is the elegance of the language. Klein wrote it in English – her third or fourth language. Gerda endures imprisonment in her own home, relocation to a ghetto, and slave labor in several different camps. Toward the end of the war, Gerda is forced on a death march. This is a compelling story and has a companion film titled One Survivor Remembers which won an Academy Award.

In My Hands: Memoirs of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Gut Opduke with Jennifer Armstrong
Irene Gut was a seventeen-year-old Polish girl when WWII began. She was forced to work for the German army as a waitress and eventually as a housekeeper for a Nazi major. Against all odds, she successfully hid twelve Jews in the basement of the major’s home until the end of the war. In My Hands is the story of the sacrifices Irene made to save these lives.

The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by James Cross Giblin
I realize this may seem like an odd choice. Every year I have at least one middle school student who is fascinated with Adolf Hitler; you may also have students with this interest. This is the book I would recommend you hand to them. Giblin won the Robert F. Siebert Medal for this text which is given annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished informational book published in the United States in English. The book is even-handed and does not glorify Hitler in any way. It dispels many common myths about the man and addresses his destructive legacy.

Teaching Anne Frank – The Whole Story

Many middle school English teachers teach some version of the story of Anne Frank to their kids.  In Shawnee Mission, we teach the play version of the diary.   Most of us remember Anne as being our first introduction to the Holocaust.  She is someone that students can easily identify with, and also someone who students can admire for her strength of character and insight into the world.  However, if you teach only Anne’s diary, or some form of it like the play, students are not really getting a Holocaust story.  They are getting a wonderful story of a girl who is in hiding, during the Holocaust.  I feel it is important for teachers to teach their students what happened to Anne and her family before they went into hiding and after, in order for them to see who she really was and what was really happening to her and the millions of other victims of the Holocaust.

One excellent resource, in my opinion, is the movie Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001).  This was a miniseries which is now available in its entirety on DVD.   It was made without actually using the diary – the Anne Frank Foundation did not allow them to use her actual words.  However, it is based on several other biographies and testimony of people who knew her or shared experiences with her.  This movie is in three parts.  Part 1 tells of their life before Hitler came to power in Amsterdam, all the way through to their going into hiding.  I have found it to be an excellent way for the kids to understand how their lives changed once Hitler came into power, the family dynamics before they are forced to live in hiding, and who Anne really was, apart from her diary entries.  

Part 2 is the story of their hiding.  We watch this after we have read the play.  My advanced students read the play as well as about 5 diary entries, so they can see how the play was different than the actual diary.   While it follows the basic story line of the play, it shows in more detail the dynamics of the people living there and just how hard it was.  It also includes all four of the helpers, rather than just Miep and Mr. Kraler in the play.  I have found it to be a great supplement to reading the diary or play.  The kids can see everything a little more realistically than the play, and from more than just Anne’s perspective in the diary.

Part 3 tells the story of what happened to them after they were caught.  To me, this is the most important part of the story that we don’t talk about.  So many people think of Anne’s life only in hiding.  They don’t know (and probably don’t want to know) what happened to her in the camps.  I think it is important to understand how terribly difficult the remainder of her life was, and how strong she did stay despite the conditions.  I also think it’s important to put the diary and play into perspective.  I have my students think about her most famous line, “I still believe people are good at heart,” and analyze whether that is an accurate statement of Anne’s whole life, or just how she was feeling at the time.  Would she have said that in Bergen Belsen?  

The film is long; there definitely is merit in showing portions of it rather than the whole thing.  However, if time allows, I have found that the students get so much more from seeing the whole film in conjunction with reading the diary and/or play, and there is so much that you can teach while watching the film.

Nazis and aliens...

I happened to be up late recently grading essays when a television show came on titled, “Unsealed:  Alien Files.”  In it, they claim to be “unearthing the biggest secret on planet Earth,” and proceed to start saying that the Nazis had alien technology that enabled them to become the world power they did before and during the war.  I could not believe my eyes and ears.  After I closed my open mouth, my first response was to want to write the station to tell them how I could not believe they would be so irresponsible as to air such a ridiculous story.  But, then, I remembered that there were all types of “reality” television shows on that attract such “fringe” viewers to them.  Some of the “experts” who were featured on the show were publishers of UFO Magazine and the web site, which I obviously do not subscribe to or visit, or I would have already known that Hitler was trying to build a time machine.

 My most pressing concern was that Holocaust deniers would use something like this to say that the Holocaust did not happen, that people were not responsible for the atrocities that happened, and that the truth was unknown.  Sometimes, it is difficult for me to understand how anyone could deny the Holocaust happened, and then I see this on television, and I think anything is possible.  However, there is more evidence that the Holocaust happened than I saw evident on the show that aliens helped the Nazis rise to power during World War II.  This is once again validation that Holocaust education is so important to make sure that people know the truth.  I just hope I was the only person watching this show.  

Missouri Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission

The state of Missouri created this commission a few years ago. For the last year or so, I have been “unofficially” attending the commission meetings. The committee members include DESE representatives, active and retired teachers, university professors, private citizens, and representatives from the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center in St. Louis.

"The goals of the Missouri Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission include:
            Providing support to Missouri teachers in teaching the Holocaust
            Publicizing events related to Holocaust education and remembrance
            Preserving the legacy of Holocaust survivors in Missouri”

The website is a work in progress, but there are valuable links and information about related events and activities that would be of interest to you and your students. I encourage you to visit the site every month or so to watch it develop and learn more about the commission and its efforts. It’s an important step in supporting Holocaust education in the state of Missouri.

Book Review of Auschwitz: A New History

Laurence Rees is a writer and documentary filmmaker that has focused on the Nazis and World War II for approximately the last twenty years. This book accompanies the documentary film titled, "Auschwitz:  Inside the Nazi State" that was produced by the BBC and KCET (a public television station in Los Angeles). As the title of the book suggests, this history offers a new perspective because it provides the reader with new interviews (conducted by Rees) of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators.  Rees believes these interviews are unique because many of the perpetrators are approaching the end of their lives and are willing to record their roles, for better or worse, in this major historical event known as the Holocaust.  Another thing that allows for new perspective in this book was the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.  It opened the way for Rees to investigate archives and interview people that had once been out of reach. 

 Rees believes that "one of the worse crimes in history is best understood through the prism of one physical place - Auschwitz."  Rees leads his reader to the realization that the Final Solution, and the steps leading to it, was a business not of trials and errors, but of trials and improvements.  The reader learns about how Jews suffered as they were relocated into ghettos.  Their deportation to various work camps and the methods of their mass executions are examined.  Once the Final Solution became official Nazi policy, the methods of mass execution needed to be perfected to kill and dispose of the most number of bodies as quickly as possible.   Auschwitz-Birkenau was the culmination of all of the knowledge gained in this 'business' of the murder of the Jews.  This book gives its readers insight into behavior of perpetrators and victims at this one death camp.     

The author focuses on the alienation, relocation, and murder of various groups in Nazi occupied territory.  While readers are made aware of the persecution of groups like communists, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals, the story primarily focuses on the 1.1 million Jews that died in a strategic location that was chosen for its isolation and proximity to rail lines. Auschwitz was originally constructed as a prisoner of war camp but was transformed into an efficient killing factory with the use of gas chambers and crematorium (with the building of Birkenau).  Rees also examines the lives of those prisoners not immediately killed upon arrival at the camp and those Nazis charged with managing them. The stories about the psychological impact that the act of murdering had on the perpetrators, explains why a more efficient and hands-off method of murder was needed at Auschwitz than existed in other camps.  (The author also explains how the hands off approach that is developed at Auschwitz also helped make it easier for Nazis to escape prosecution when the war was over).

Rees takes his interview and intertwines them with policy development in Nazi occupied territories to give the reader both a top down and bottom up historical perspective of the Holocaust.  For example, Rees tells us about the development of the Kapo system where a person (known as the Kapo) would be put in charge of his fellow Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp.  As Heinrich Himmler (Head of the SS) explains, it was the job of the Kapo to get his men to work and if he did not he would lose his title and return to being a regular inmate. If that happened, they would "beat him to death his first night back." On the flip side, Otto Pressburger was a Jewish prison at Auschwitz and explained the violence of the Kapos toward the other Jewish workers.  He recalls how the Kapo killed twelve people "just for fun" and it all "happened the first day" he was at work in the camp. This mixing of a top down and bottom up perspective gives the reader a more in depth and intimate understanding of events.

Overall, Rees provides a balanced perspective of personal narratives and big picture historical events.  He is, at times, critical of the first hand accounts of not only perpetrators but also at least partially of survivors.  He delves into his interviews by examining questions he knows his reader will likely have. (Ex. What might be a person's motivation to lie or tell a partial truth? How does history impact memory?)  Rees also addresses issues that also seem a bit taboo such as a love story between an SS officer and female Jewish prisoner and a story of a survivor, who at the end of the war, took pride in hunting down and murdering Germans.  These lesser known stories, while shocking, help demonstrate the madness of the time period.  At times it seems Rees takes his reader off on irrelevant tangents, but he always comes full circle and ends up giving more depth to the reader's understanding of the Holocaust.