Eve’s Favorite Children’s Books about the Holocaust
The Holocaust took place in Germany during World War Two. Over six million Jewish children, women, and men were murdered by the Nazis and their supporters in occupied countries in Europe. In addition to Jews, the Nazis jailed and killed Sinti and Roma (gypsies), disabled people, political opponents, homosexuals, and others.
Why would anyone want to read about horrors that took place long ago?
There are many answers to this question. Perhaps the most important is our obligation to learn about the past, in order to prevent it from happening again in the present, or the future. If we ignore what happened in the past, we are leaving the door open for the horrors to happen again.
And they are happening. Before the Jewish Holocaust, there were terrible massacres of over a million Armenians by the Turks between 1914-1923. Since World War Two, there have been mass genocides in countries like Cambodia, Rwanda and Serbia.
But books about the Holocaust are not books of horror. They are also books of hope. In the best of them, we meet people, real and fictional, who struggled to maintain their compassion in the face of terrible odds. Books about the Holocaust reveal what it meant to be a survivor. They show us how strong and caring human beings can be, but also how evil they can be. To know the Holocaust is to know the depths of the human soul. Sometimes it is a frightening experience, but it an experience that makes us stronger, more ethical human beings.
While working on my thesis for my master’s degree in children’s literature, I read many books written for children about the Holocaust. I did not read them all because there are so many. I have chosen my personal favorites for this list. If you have additional books to recommend, I would like to hear from you.
In general, I have divided my recommendations by subject matter, rather than age level. As a child I often read books that were meant for older children or adults. Be warned that the books about concentration camps may contain scenes that are shocking; the other books are “easier” to read in terms of their subject matter.
The red arrow in some of the book descriptions is meant to alert you to something about the book I find disturbing or particularly noteworthy. This is my opinion; after reading the book, you may not agree with me.
Although we think of picture books as read-aloud books for young children, picture books about the Holocaust are usually for older children. These are my favorites:
Bunting, Eve. Illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust. Harper & Row 1980
This simple little book packs a powerful emotional impact. All the creatures in the forest are taken away by the Terrible Things. No one stands up to help each other.
Bunting, Eve. Illustrated by K. Wendy Popp. One Candle. Harper Collins, 2002.
A Jewish family celebrates the Hanukah holiday with their personal variation: a tradition carried on since the grandmother’s imprisonment in a concentration camp when a single stolen potato allowed her to light the Hanukah candles. Lovely illustrations showing the contrast between the happy family in the present and the camps.
Using poetic understatement, Hess tells the dramatic story of a Jewish girl’s success in helping smuggle food into the Warsaw ghetto using a pack of homeless cats. Striking illustrations. This book illustrates Jewish resistance – one of only a few books in English that does.
Exquisitely detailed illustrations follow the tragic story of a German girl who attempts to help Jewish children imprisoned in a camp outside her town. Rose Blanch is a fable of German resistance; Rose Blanche, or Rosa Weiss in German, was the name of an ill-fated German resistance group. But why are the Jewish children in the book so unimportant? And why has a German child’s death become a metaphor for the Holocaust?
Nivola, Claire A. Elisabeth. Farrar Strauss Giroux. 1997.
A low-key story of a Jewish girl who leaves behind her favorite doll when she and her family flee Nazi Germany, only to be reunited years later.
Many of the novels written about escape from the Nazis read like adventure stories. While exciting, these also raise questions of identity, loyalty and the price of survival.
Bergman, Tamar. Along the Tracks. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Translated from Hebrew, it chronicles the adventures of a Polish boy and his family as they attempt to escape from the Nazi invasion by fleeing eastward into Russia. When Yankele is accidentally separated from his mother and siblings, he must learn to survive alone.
Kerr, Judith. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. (1971) NY: Putnam Grosset. 1997.
Told from the perspective of nine-year-old Anna, this is the story of an assimilated German Jewish family’s difficult decision to leave their homeland.
Orgel, Doris. The Devil in Vienna. New York: Puffin. 1978.
Jewish Inge and Christian Lieselotte struggle to maintain their friendship as Hitler and his supporters take over Vienna.
Orlev, Uri. Run Boy Run. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Translated from Hebrew. Eight-year- old Srulik escapes from the ghetto after losing his family and begins a desperate run for survival. He meets both helpful and hateful people along the way until, at war’s end, he is faced with a wrenching choice.
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Books about hiding, while less adventurous than books about escape, allow for a closer focus on character and the relationships that develop between the hidden and their rescuers.
Bishop, Claire Huchet. Ten and Twenty. (1952). NY: Puffin, 1991.
Twenty fifth graders in a small school in occupied France hide ten Jewish children.
Orlev, Uri. The Island on Bird Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
Translated from Hebrew. Orlev is my favorite Israeli children’s author and this book will help you understand why. Eleven-year-old Alex struggles to survive alone in the Warsaw ghetto after his parents are captured. Like Robinson Crusoe, Alex builds his shelter, searches for food, defends himself, and finds companionship in his pet mouse, as he waits for his father to fulfill his promise and return for him.
Reisse, Johanna. The Upstairs Room. NY: Harper Trophy. 1972.
Six-year-old Annie and her older sister hide with a Dutch farm family when the Nazis occupy Holland. Confined to a single upstairs room, Annie grows in maturity and understanding as the years pass in hiding.
Sachs, Marilyn. A Pocket Full of Seeds. (1973). NY: Penguin, 1994.
The terrible moment when Nicole comes home and discovers her family gone is one of the most memorable of any book about the Holocaust. Set in France, Nicole must find a safe hiding place to survive the war.
Williams, Laura. Behind the Bedroom Wall. Milkweed, 1996.
I include this book because it is told from the interesting perspective of a German girl who discovers that a Jewish family is hiding behind her bedroom wall. Korinna must choose between her loyalty to the Third Reich and her school friends, and her growing affection for the Jewish child.I found Korinna’s actions a bit too predictable.
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Books about resistance to the Nazis are full of tension and drama. They are often about Christians who helped Jews to escape from German occupied countries. The books about hiding are also about resistance, for the hidden children were protected by brave non-Jews who risked their lives and their family’s lives to protect them. There are too few books in English about the resistance of the Jews themselves, while Hebrew children’s literature has many books on this subject.
Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars. NY: Dell, 1989.
This Newbery award-winning novel recounts the gripping tale of two Danish girls who are close friends. When the Danish resistance mobilizes to evacuate the Danish Jews to Sweden, Annemarie risks her life to save her friend Ellen and her family. Although I think this is a wonderful book, I am bothered by the presentation of Ellen and her family. While Annemarie is spunky and courageous, Ellen is passive and fearful. She acts like a stereotyped victim.
Morpurgo, Michael. Waiting for Anya. UK: Egmont, 1990.
Set in a small French village on the Spanish border that is occupied by German soldiers, this book reveals the bravery of ordinary people who helped Jewish children escape across the border to freedom in Spain.
Orlev, Uri. The Man From the Other Side. (1989). NY: Puffin, 1995.
Translated from the Hebrew. This is another favorite of mine by Uri Orlev. Fourteen-year-old Marek helps his anti-Semitic stepfather earn a living smuggling food and arms to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Marek doesn’t like Jews either, until his mother reveals that his own father was Jewish. Marek befriends a young Jewish man who has escaped from the ghetto and is torn between his personal safety and his desire to join the revolt in the ghetto. Marek’s dilemma is clearly drawn and the characters are never stereotyped.
Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. NY: Tor, 1992.
This book tells two stories. The frame story describes Becca’s search for the true story behind her beloved grandmother’s unique telling of the Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) fairytale. The second is the gripping story of a Polish nobleman and homosexual who fought the Nazis. I wish the characters of Becca and her sisters had been more fully developed, but the characters of Gemma and Josef Potocki are fascinating.
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Books by German writers present the rise of Nazi Germany from the perspective of German youth. Some of the authors, like Hans Peter Richter, were members of Nazi youth groups who try to understand what attracted German youth to Hitler and his ideas. They confront the difficult conflict between friendship and ideals and the ethical choices this conflict entails.
Chotjewitz, David, trans. Doris Orgel. Daniel Half Human. (2000) Simon Pulse. NY: 2006.
Daniel and Armin are German boys who support the rise of the Nazis and are drawn to the Nazi youth movement until Daniel learns that he is half Jewish. His relationship with Armin changes, although Armin tries to be a good Nazi and a good friend at the same time. I found the frequent skips between the 1930’s and post-war period distracting. I also found it hard to believe that Daniel wouldn’t guess his mother was Jewish. The character of Armin is the more interesting, but he is less prominent that Daniel.
Jung, Reinhardt. Trans Anthea Bell. Dreaming in Black and White. (1996) NY: Penguin, 2003.
Hannes Keller, who has cerebral palsy, lives in the present but dreams himself back into Nazi Germany where he is considered an insult to the purity of the Aryan race because of his disability. I am very pleased that there is now a children’s book dealing with the Nazi murder of people with disabilities, mental illness and retardation. But here, too, the constant jumping back and forth between past and present is distracting and the present day scenes add little to the story itself.
Pausewang, Gudrun. Trans. Patricia Crampton. The Final Journey. (1992) NY: Puffin. 1998.
Eleven-year-old Alice has spent years in physical hiding with her family, who have also hid from her the truth about what is happening in Germany. Now traveling in a crowded boxcar to Auschwitz, she faces reality and begins to grow-up. The story follows the inhabitants of the car though nightmarish days of thirst, fear, uncertainty, degradation and for some, death. I found it hard to believe the premise that Alice would be so naïve and undiscerning. Much of the story is based on irony: while the characters cling to hope of a better future, they are actually being transported to the gas chambers. This is not an easy book to read, but it is very powerful.
Richter, Hans Peter. Trans. Edite Kroll. Friedrich. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1970.
The moving story of two German boys who grow up as neighbors in the same apartment building. The story chronicles the rise of the Nazis to power and the growing discrimination against the Jewish family through the point of view of the German boy. The Jews, however, are portrayed as helpless victims who are guilty of failing to heed the warnings of their German friends to leave Germany before it is too late.
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Most early books about the Holocaust dealt with escape, hiding, and resistance. Today, more and more authors are confronting the horrors and suffering of life and death in the ghettos and concentration camps.
Translated from the Hebrew. Told from the point of view of six-year-old Biba who is separated from her parents, undergoes a traumatic train journey and is reunited with her mother in a labor camp. Biba’s experiences on the train journey and in the camp are vividly portrayed, as is her moral dilemma in the final chapter of the book. Contains a very shocking death scene, so be forewarned.
Bitton-Jackson, Livia. I have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust. NY: Simon & Schuster. 1999.
A memoir of the author’s experiences in the Holocaust. Thirteen-year-old Elli poses as sixteen when she is sent to Auschwitz with her mother. Elli makes daily life and death decisions to stay alive. Contains some horrifying scenes of death and dying, but is well worth reading.
Lobel, Anita. No Pretty Pictures: a Child of War. NY: Avon, 1998.
A memoir describing the author and her younger brother’s difficult experiences in hiding, alone in a concentration camp, and recovering their health in Sweden after the war. The children’s loving relationship with their non-Jewish nurse who adopts them as her own and risks her life for them countless times is very moving.
Matas, Carol. Daniel’s Story. N.Y. Scholastic 1993.
A novel told in the form of Daniel’s memories as he moves from his home to the ghetto to the concentration camps to the days following liberation. Paints a broad picture of the suffering of the Jewish during the Holocaust, and also instances of Jewish resistance. Written to accompany an exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the story sometimes resembles a historical panorama at the expense of character development.
Napoli, Donna Jo. Stones in Water. New York: Puffin, 1999.
A very powerful book revealing a little-known side of the Holocaust – the German treatment of Italian slave laborers. Roberto and his Jewish friend Samuel are captured by German soldiers and sent to Germany along with other Italian boys. Their strong friendship helps them survive the hardships of prison life until… Samuel, the Jewish boy, is a strong character rather than a helpless victim.
Nolan, Han. If I should die before I wake. N.Y.: Harcourt Brace.1994
This time slip fantasy focuses on Hillary, a neo-Nazi teenager who lies in a coma after a motorcycle accident. She is transported back to Poland where she becomes Chana, a Jewish girl deported to a concentration camp. The emphasis on the help the women in the camp give each other is very moving. The contemporary story is not as well developed as the Holocaust story, but the introduction of the neo-Nazi theme is well done.
Sender, Ruth Minsky. The Cage. NY: Aladdin. 1986
This fictionalized memoir follows 13 year old Riva as she helps to keep her family together in the ghetto following her mother’s deportation, experiences her first love, is transported to Auschwitz and struggles to survive in the new hell she finds there. Riva never grapples with self-doubt or moral questions. The author’s message of hope seems overly optimistic in the light of her terrible experiences.
Spinelli, Jerry. Milkweed. NY: Knopf, 2003.
Mischa is a wild child with no memories of his (gypsy?) past who is befriended by a group of Jewish orphans in the Warsaw ghetto. The overwhelming presence of suffering and death in the ghetto is filtered through Mischa’s consciousness as he struggles to survive and to help the Jewish family he has adopted. The end section with Mischa as a grown-up in America disappointed me. The skills and cunning that served Mischa in the ghetto are self-destructive in his new environment, but Mischa’s failure to adjust seemed out of character.
Warren, Andrea. Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. NY: Harper Trophy, 2002.
A slightly fictionalized story of a fifteen-year-old boy who survived the concentration camps. Told to the author by Jack Mandelbaum, the characters come alive through vivid detail, fictionalized dialogue, and photos from the period and after. In a restrained way, the book presents many details about daily life and death in concentration camps.
Yolen, Jane. The Devil’s Arithmetic. NY: Viking Penguin, 1998.
A strong time slip novel in which Hannah, who is rebelling against her family and their Jewish traditions, is transported back to a Polish village where her uncle’s wedding is interrupted by the deportation of the entire wedding party to a concentration camp. The bravery of the Jewish men and women in the camp and their struggle to survive without relinquishing their faith and humanity are set against the filth and depravation of the camp.
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Many of the books described above contain sections that take place after the war. Here I have included books that are set entirely after the war in Europe.
Almagor, Gila. Trans. Hillel Schenker. Under the Domim Tree. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Translated from the Hebrew (by my cousin, Hillel!), this novel focuses on teenagers living in a youth village in Israel in 1953. Based on the author’s own experiences as the daughter of a mentally unstable partisan, the story provides insight into the overwhelming difficulties facing children who survived the Holocaust. At the same time, it is also a story of friendship and first love.
Bat-Ami, Miriam. Two Suns in the Sky. Chicago: Front Street/Cricket Books, 1999.
Fifteen-year-old Chris Cook meets and falls in love with Adam Bornstein, a Yugoslavian Jew who has been accepted with his family in the Oswego Emergency Refugee Shelter, the U.S. government’s only attempt to rescue Jews during World War Two. Beautifully told from the viewpoints of both main characters, this novel reveals a little known aspect of American history.
Levoy, Myron. Alan and Naomi. (1977) NY: Harper Collins, 1987.
Naomi and her mother come to the U.S. after Naomi’s father is killed before her eyes for resistance work. Severely traumatized, Naomi is befriended by Alan who tries to help her regain confidence and the ability to make friends. The story is complicated by Alan’s own sense of insecurity in his friendship with Shaun, and the anti-Semitic neighborhood bully. A powerful story, which never idealizes Naomi’s problem or tries to supply a conventional happy ending.
Matas, Carol. After the War. NY: Aladdin. 1997.
Fifteen-year-old Ruth has survived the camps but finds her future in Europe bleak. She joins a group of children preparing to immigrate to Israel. Her work with the children helps her to come to terms with her own traumas, but the difficult journey threatens to reawaken them. Matas paints a horrifying picture of the reception the surviving Jewish met when they returned “home,” and does not glorify their struggle to find a new home in Israel. The Jewish characters are perhaps too good to be true.
You can find additional bibliographies as well as many interesting articles at the excellent site Holocaust Teacher Resource Center: http://www.holocaust-trc.org/home.htm.
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