Category Archives: Holocaust

Remembering the Holocaust Through My Family

Last week I applied to have my German citizenship restored.  This is because I would be German if not for the Holocaust. That is, everyone in the generations before me on both my mother and father’s sides were German and Jewish. Some of them stayed and survived for various reasons (say because their ancestors had converted a few generations earlier and according to the various rules of the Nazis they were no longer Jewish), some (my grandfather for one) were killed, and some left in time for Brazil, Israel, England, and the United States.

So I’ve provided the necessary documentation and expect to get my German citizenship before long.  Why?  It may surprise some, but I feel very German. I was raised with German food, German activities, and so forth.  My father was a specialist in German politics and I spent a lot of time in Germany (years, in fact) as a child. I speak German fluently. My family was assimilated and so I have German relatives who are Christian because their ancestors converted and in 2005 I met many of them for the first time when the University of Frankfurt celebrated my great-grandfather who was a famous brain specialist and started the Edinger Institut there. As for my mother’s family, they were from Berlin and managed to get out so late because of our cousin Lotte Passer who was already in London. Lotte died last month at the age of 99.  You can see a moving interview with her here.  I’ve always been fascinated that my parents were interned as enemy aliens on the Isle of Man because England was at war with German and they were, after all, German. Another cousin Werner Isler, came to the States. An avid music lover, he passed away last month as well; you can hear his lovely piano playing here.

Over the years I’ve done many posts related to the Holocaust. Here are a few of them:

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Many Anne Franks

That’s my 7th grade diary given to me in 1964 by my grandmother along with a copy of Anne Frank’s diary right before we left for a year in Germany.  When we visited the recently-opened Anne Frank House a few months later I realized that my diary was just like Anne’s.  Presumably my grandmother bought it in Frankfurt (before she and my father fled in 1936) and then gave it to me years later.  I was almost twelve when I first read Anne’s diary ; it had a profound impression on me and so I’ve been always interested in related books.  As survivors die off (say my father two years ago), we grapple with how best to honor Anne and all who suffered because of the Holocaust.  I’m particularly interested in those about Anne, say:

  • Francine Prose’s excellent Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. (This book is for adults, but is simply superb. Prose shows what a literary gem the diary is.)
  • The Anne Frank House’s engrossing Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures. (Love this one. Does a fantastic job of putting the story into context with primary sources.)
  • Sharon Dogar’s forthcoming fictional imagining of Peter van Pels’ diary, Annexed. (Still processing my feelings about this one.)

And the latest, a graphic novel version of the diary coming from the Anne Frank House.  Having read their two previous graphic novels, The Search and A Family Secret, I’m a bit dubious.  I requested them from their American publisher (thank you, Macmillan) after reading about them, but I found the writing unfortunately mediocre and so I’m extremely wary of this forthcoming graphic novel of the diary.  They (just as does Sharon Dogar) are looking for hooks to bring young people to the diary itself.  Very laudable, but I guess I’m still for giving them the real thing.

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The Issue of Truth in Fiction

What is truth in fiction? Is it that the facts that fiction presents happened, or at least could have happened? But what if fiction does not claim to present facts? What if the story is clearly a fairytale, a satire, a comedy, which by definition does not limit itself to what happened or could have happened?

German author, Bernard Schlink asks, “Are authors allowed to craft fairytales, satires or comedies about anything? Even about the Holocaust?” in a very thoughtful essay, “Guaranteeing truth, and avoiding it “ from a collection Guilt About the Past just published in Australia.

via Judith Ridge on child_lit.

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A. O. Scott Reminds Us To “Never Forget. You’re Reminded.”

If the Holocaust can inspire a great work of art, then it can also incubate the ambition to achieve such greatness, and thus open itself up, like everything else, to exploitation, pretense and vulgarity. Worse, the aura that still surrounds this topic — the sense that it must be treated with a special measure of tact and awe — can be appropriated by clumsy, sentimental and meretricious films or books, which protect themselves from criticism by a cloak of seriousness and piety. Thus the immodest indecency of a movie like Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning “Life Is Beautiful” was, during its initial period of triumph, deflected onto those with the temerity to criticize it. Those who resisted its manipulative juxtaposition of sweet, childlike innocence with barbarity were accused of lacking the gravity and sensitivity that Mr. Benigni’s travesty required.

And a similar defense is invoked, explicitly or implicitly, so routinely that it calls forth cynicism. Why do opportunistic, clever young novelists — I won’t name any names — gravitate toward magic-realist depictions of the decidedly unmagical reality of the Shoah? For the same reason that actors shave their heads and starve themselves, or preen and leer in jackboots and epaulets. For the same reason that filmmakers commission concrete barracks and instruct their cinematographers and lab technicians to filter out bright, saturated colors. To win prizes of course.

Film – Never Forget. You’re Reminded. – NYTimes.com

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Film

I was not a fan of the book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I’ve written here before of my family background (both sides of the family were German Jews and some, notably my grandfather, did not leave and were deported and killed) and my reservations about introducing the Holocaust to young children.  I found Bruno’s naivete not credible and his mangling of words such as Fury for Fuhrer annoying (as it made no sense in German).  However, films based on books can be very different so I am willing to consider that this movie may work.  Mind you, I’m skeptical (as I am also NOT a fan of another allegorical Holocaust film Life is Beautiful), but I am willing to wait and see.  One thing I am glad to see in the trailer is that Bruno is eight rather than ten so his innocence is a tad more possible.  I can’t tell too much more yet from the trailer. We’ll see.

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Day trip to Auschwitz for pupils from every school in England

A good idea, I think.

From the Times:

Two sixth-formers from every school in England are to visit Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust, under a government-funded initiative to help to ensure that the lessons of the Nazi genocide live on with a new generation.

Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, wants the teenagers who take part to educate their classmates and communities in turn by giving them their own accounts of the death camp in Poland where more than one million Jews, Roma, Sinti, gay, disabled and black people were put to death.

The Government will fund the greater majority of the cost of each student’s trip. While their school must find £100, the Education Department will find the remaining £200 per trip over the next three years….

Critics have suggested that the visits might act as a smokescreen to disguise present-day atrocities. But Mr Knight is determined that this will not happen. “We want them to see it, not as an isolated period of history, but as something real and something that can happen again and again if we let it, like it has happened since then in the Balkans, in Cambodia and in Rwanda,” he said.

This is why today he will confirm that the scheme, which has been piloted since 2006, will now be on a permanent footing receiving £1.5 million of government funding a year until 2011, with a promise of further funding in the future…

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German Youth Today and the Holocaust

Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933, 75 years ago this week. This grim anniversary was acknowledged in Germany in a variety of ways. I’ve noted before here that I’m the daughter of German Holocaust survivors. I lived and schooled in Germany as a child, am fluent in German, and go often to visit family and friends. You see, the broad story of Jews and the Holocaust is not as one-dimensional as may appear. There are numerous stories; my family’s is one.

But this post isn’t about my family. It is about Germans and their efforts to inform and educate their youth about their dreadful history. This is something I’ve been interested in for decades. I have some articles in German and friends have told me that sometimes it did seem that it was overdone. (I sometimes wonder if young Germans view the lessons and speeches on this topic the way some young Americans may view slavery and the civil rights era — events long ago that haven’t as much to do with them as the adults think).

Today I came across an interesting new resource in this Guardian piece, “German Children Taught Graphic Truth About Nazis.” Evidently the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam has published a graphic novel, A Family Secret with a second one to come (already evidently available in German and Dutch), The Search. Some of the images are available here.

I know how hard it is to teach history to children. Right now I’m exploring forced immigration with my fourth graders, the horrific history of slavery in America. This year’s class is eager and curious, some are already well-prepared. Other years I have had to tread more cautiously with students shocked and prone to nightmares with all this new information. And so because of my family history and my observations of children learning history I’m always curious how Germany in particular handles this particular part of their history with young people. These books seem like an interesting direction to try.

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Our Holocaust

Following up on yesterday’s post, Our Holocaust is a memoir for adults by Israeli Amir Gutfreund, the child of Holocaust survivors. While I grew up in small Southern and Midwestern communities where we were usually the only such family, Gutfreund had a very different experience. You can read an excerpt here and a longer one here.

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The Holocaust and Shoelaces

Recently on her blog, Lois Lowry quoted from a letter she had received from a 6th grade teacher who was teaching her book, Number the Stars. Inspired by the film “Paper Clips” this teacher’s students were collecting shoelaces. “Since October we have been collecting shoelaces, measuring them, and tying them together with the goal of collecting 6,000,000 centimeters of laces to represent the 6,000,000 Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.”

Yesterday on his blog, Roger Sutton, wrote of his problems with the project, provoking many comments as well as a follow-up post from Lois Lowry herself. “What bothers me the most about this project is its profound anti-intellectualism.” wrote Roger. I agree.

We need to teach kids to think — hard about hard topics. To do so we need to give them intellectual tools to grapple with such hard topics. Tools free of sentimentality and simplicity. And while we adults must be aware and sensitive to children’s emotional well-being while involving them in such hard topics, making them feel good in a virtuous way as the paper clips and shoelaces projects do is better left for other topics.

I’ve posted on this topic before and most certainly will again as it is not only important to me as a teacher and human being, but because it is my family history. Considering the Holocaust in historical context, helping those new to it see how it happened, grappling with the idea that people like ourselves allowed it to happen and participated it in it happening, and considering how it connects to other crimes against humanity — it is all critical critical stuff.

History is not simple. I feel that I’m spending my life trying to understand horrors like the Holocaust, war of any kind, and all the other dreadful things humans do to each other. The best I can do as a teacher is to help my students use the same intellectual tools I use — to help them also try to make sense of things that don’t make any sense.

Those tools don’t require paper clips or shoelaces, just minds ready to work. Hard.

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The Holocaust for Young Children

passport4.jpg

I do not understand.

Why this urgency to introduce the Holocaust to young children? The plethora of picture books and middle grade fiction on the topic seems never ending. Book after book about horrible events with little to anchor them historically, the latest being John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

That’s my father’s 1938 Third Reich passport up there with its big red J for Jew. He came to the US with his mother at age 14; his father chose to stay and was killed. As for my mother, she left Berlin in 1942 for England where her Jewish parents were interned as enemy aliens. So the history of the Holocaust is also the history of my family and you’d think that I’d be thrilled to see all these books, that I’d want children to be exposed to the Holocaust as soon as possible.

Um…no.

A primary purpose of Holocaust education should focus on teaching students the history of the Holocaust. This means a focus on what happened and why it happened; the key individuals and groups engulfed in the history and the myriad ways in which they affected and/or were affected by key decisions and events; and when, where, why, and how key decisions and events were played out, and the ramifications of the latter. If it neglects to focus on the history, then what is the purpose of Holocaust education?

Samuel Totten, Should there be Holocaust Education for K-4 Students? The Answer is No” (from Social Sciences and the Young Learner, Volume 12, Number 1, September/October, 1999.)

In fact, I’m with Totten. What is the purpose of introducing the Holocaust to young children? In the case of the recent books I’ve seen, it seems to be to inform, engage, and expose young readers to a dreadful crime against humanity, a genocide that the adult creators laudably want to be sure never happens again in any way. (Or at least not here as it does seem to have happened again in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur.)

But is this intended child audience developmentally ready to really understand the Holocaust? Certainly my 4th graders admire the acts of heroism and bravery, are shocked at the situations of incredible cruelty and prejudice, and are able to empathize with the suffering presented in these books. And they can go beyond them to talk of intolerance and injustice. But to even begin to understand the Holocaust in history, in the way it really needs to be understood, not at all. They are not ready.

While elementary students are able to empathize with individual survivor accounts, they often have difficulty placing these personal stories in a larger historical context.

Teaching about the Holocaust: A Resource Book for Educators, page 3.

So how about waiting until they are ready? Despite some people’s worries, the Holocaust is not going away any time soon.

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