Gail Herman’s What Was the Holocaust?

My fourth grade students are big fans of the Who Was? book series. Strong readers, by and large, they can gulp one down in a day. I haven’t read many of them, just those that feature outliers of particular interest to me, say  Who Was Charlie Chaplin? by Patricia Brennan Demuth and Who Was Lewis Carroll? by Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso. While I was dubious that it would be possible to present these complicated men in such a format, I found both titles to be solidly researched, informative, and appropriate for the intended audience.  And that has been it until What Was the Holocaust? by Gail Herman.

Now some context to what follows. I’m the child of German Jews on both sides, some were murdered, some survived camps, some managed to get out. All were persecuted while living in Nazi Germany. You can read more about them here. As for me, having grown up in a family that did not practice any form of Judaism (only identifying via ethnicity) nor lived in Jewish communities (I grew up in southern and midwestern towns and cities) and with a strong connection to Germany, the Holocaust was a pretty vague idea to me. In fact I can only recall two instances during my elementary school years.  One was a woman with a tattooed number on her arm at a summer vacation colony my mother’s parents went to and being aware that it had been done at concentration camps. Another was sneaking into my father’s study to look at a book full of the skeletal people in the camps in the same way, to be brutally honest, I looked through National Geographic. Strange was strange be they people of my own ethnicity close to death or people from far away with practices that fascinated me. I was somewhat aware that my father’s father had been killed in such a camp, but it seemed so far away in the past as to have no emotional resonance for me.  It was when I was ten and heading off for a year in Germany (we’d done one when I was seven too as my father was an academic) that a gift from my father’s mother spurred sudden interest. This was The Diary of Anne Frank along with a diary for me. I figured out that the diary she gave me was of the same manufacturer that Anne’s was. Unsurprising since my father and grandmother had come from Frankfurt and lived there when the Franks had. At that point I became pretty obsessed with Anne and more curious about the Holocaust.

As a result of my own experience, I’m pretty clear-eyed, I think, about kids interested in the Holocaust. This past year, as always, I showed a bunch of Charlie Chaplin movies, ending with The Great Dictator. A savage satire of Hitler and his cohorts, it came out in 1940, before the horror of the Holocaust was known. (In fact, Chaplin said he wouldn’t have made the film had he known. But it is wonderful, especially the moving final speech.)  In order for my 4th grade students to understand the satire and irony I had to give them some background on Hitler and the Holocaust. The range in what was known was vast— kids who went to Hebrew School knew a certain amount while those of other religions and ethnic backgrounds sometimes knew very little. I’m guessing that in other communities around the country, especially those where there are no Jews (the sort I grew up in), 10 year olds today probably know almost nothing.

And for those who know nothing, for whom the Holocaust is a very vague concept, this book is a success. (ETA: I’m not seeing this as a book that would be used by an adult in teaching about the Holocaust, but as a book kids would encounter independently and read on their own.) It provides an overview of what lead up to it, the camps, etc. Written in the familiar style of all of the books in the series. I commend the series editors for their sensitivity and awareness of the topic.  Not only is there a letter from editor Jane O’Connor on the decision to make the book, but also another one from Ilyse Shainbrown, a Holocaust educator. My only quibble about the content is the lack of any explanation of what Jews are. Chapter I: Anti-Semitism begins, “Anti-Semitism is the hatred of the Jews” and goes on to the various examples of this hatred from Roman times on. I just wondered if there might have been a way to define who and what Jews were. Perhaps that is too complicated, but I’m sure there will be readers of this book who will have no clue.

Now, let me get to the elephant in the room: the book’s cover. Here it is:

I admit, it shocked me. Now the big-heads are standard for the covers of all of the series, so they kept with it for this one. Did they have to? I showed the book to my colleagues who wondered if perhaps a different format (including a different type face) might work better for such serious topics. Looking through other books in the series, I can some that some could do with a serious overhauling cover-wise, The Boston Tea Party one most of all.

Next I reached out to Penguin, wondering about their thoughts and was very appreciative to hear back from the series publisher, Francesco Sedita who wrote:

As I’m sure you could imagine, we did not come to this cover easily—or even the decision to include the subject in the WhoHQ.  When thinking about this cover, we started with photo research, as we always do, and made a decision originally to not treat the cover with our typical style.  But every sketch that I saw felt wrong.  I realized as I reviewed pass after pass of coves that to treat this title differently—in a different way than titles like What Was D-Day?Who Was Anne Frank?, our upcoming What Was Stonewall?Who Was Helen Keller?, What Were the Twin Towers?, felt disingenuous and like we were purposefully making a statement around What Was the Holocaust?

We sat back for a while, had some discussions with a major account that we took to heart, and worked on the cover once again.  The end product, what you see now, is what we feel is the best way forward.  There were children in many of the photos that we had researched, and we obviously we thought they should not be included in the cover.  We did not make the heads of the men that you see too exaggerated, as we often do on our lighter-topic books, and we chose to keep their eyes away from the camera.

Because we understand that this title in our series is a very difficult one, we included a letter from the editor in, as well as a letter from an educator, in this case. Ilyse Shainbrown.

Again, this was a complex process for us and we believe we are bringing a very thoughtful account of this tragedy to a population of readers that not only love our books (and even collect them) but also need to be introduced to this subject matter in the smart way that the WhoHQ can provide.

While I appreciate the careful thought expressed here, I’m still unnerved by the cover. Having looking through all the series’ covers this one seems different —as does the topic. I understand the need to attract young readers who are unfamiliar with the topic and don’t see the cover is exploitive. That said, I still wonder if there might have been a way to show one figure (as is true for most of the other covers) rather than the column. I don’t know….I think kids will pick it up and read it and that surely is important. So I’m on the fence about it. Anyone else have thoughts about it?

Also, if this is genocide, how about books on other ones?



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8 responses to “Gail Herman’s What Was the Holocaust?

  1. laurashovan222

    I had a discussion about this book cover with several children’s authors, including those who are Jewish or of Jewish ancestry. We had many of the same concerns you express here. Thank you for contacting the publisher and for being transparent about their reply.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I am part of the discussion group of Jewish Women Writers mentioned above and I want to add my thanks to you for speaking out and for your heartfelt and personal words. It’s hard not to be offended and upset by the cover. I am also a Hebrew school teacher and, in fact the cover makes me NOT want to read, or use the book. Anti-semistim comes from a long, complicated, and continuing history, maybe the mistake was trying to tackle such an issue in this type of book in the first place.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Another member of the discussion group. The cover is highly disturbing. I thank you for writing and sharing. I plan to share it further.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The cover of the book is grotesque. Having said that, I’m not sure why anyone would pick this book to introduce the Holocaust/Shoah to students. There are many better books and other resources, including those recommended by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Jewish Book Council, the Association of Jewish Libraries, and other institutions and websites. I don’t see the awful cover as one dissonant element of an otherwise great book.
    I have noticed that you allude to your background as the children of survivors, in this and other posts, always pointing out that you are not religious, and not strongly identified with Jewish culture. Religious belief and practice, or lack thereof, were not relevant to the Nazis, and they are not the only determinant of belonging to the Jewish people. You have a wide range of choices in deciding which type of Jewish identity you embrace, or reject, but you are still Jewish. Why is that something to minimize?
    Related to this, why end your piece with the question about books on other genocides? Of course there should be books available to children about other genocides; any legitimate Holocaust educator would emphasize that. But it seems to belittle the unique aspects of the Holocaust/Shoah, by ending that way, as if finding and evaluating books about it were not in itself a goal of overwhelming importance, especially now as it recedes into the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t see this as a book adults would select as an introduction to this topic. I agree there are many fine ones and outstanding resources for that. Rather, this seems the sort of book a kid will pick up on his or own, vaguely curious. And for that, I think it serves that need. I agree about the cover, but also think that if these books help children to be even a little informed then it is good they are here.


  5. Judy

    And now a comment from another “complicated” Jew . . . one who chose, with no outside influences, to convert to Reform Judaism at the age of 40. I, too, find this cover as well as ALL the covers in this series to be offensive. The enlarged heads are just creepy to me and convey an unreal, larger-than- life quality that suggests the material inside is also unreal and larger than life. At my age I often find my perceptions not in step with modern ideas. To my way of thinking, to excuse this cover “if these books help children to be even a little informed” is preposterous. I’m sure a cover depicting one or more very horrible aspects of the Holocaust would draw even more curious readers to open this book. What I find most important to consider is respect for the subject matter and respect for the reader. Remember, we are living in an age where every day more and more people are influenced to believe the Holocaust did not even happen. This cover is not respectful of the subject matter nor of the reader. Cannot we just say so without the need to search for reasons to find it acceptable? Hopefully, many will take the time to let the publisher know, regardless of all the additional notes and explanations, that surely no young person will care about, that the cover choice was just plain wrong.

    The thoughts of a Jewish 72 year old.


  6. Lynn

    Two thoughts.

    1. I showed the cover to a Holocaust survivor and raised the issue of how some found this cover disturbing. Her response was, “What happened to us was more disturbing. If this gets one child to read about what happened, it is okay with me. What is good is that it shows that we were real people.”

    2. From the point of view of Antisemitism, we should all be much more upset by the lack of accountability for ALSC on their bestowal of the 2017 Legacy (nee Laura Ingalls Wilder) award to Nikki Grimes for her AT JERUSALEM’S GATE, which repeats the worst, long discredited tropes about Jews and the Passion of Jesus Christ Emily Schneider covers the issues in depth two days ago in this article over at Tablet. The silence of the diversity community on this book is very troubling, and gets more troubling with each passing day.


  7. marjorie

    Great, thoughtful review, Monica. Really glad you reached out to the publisher.


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