How many times have we hesitated before letting our children read or watch something with gory details and images? We want to protect them from the harsh realities and depressing events, wistfully wishing to preserve their innocence for a while longer. ‘Should we?’ ‘Should we not?’ is the eternal dilemma.
Perhaps, the answer to the question above lies in Hana’s Suitcase — the true story of Hana Brady, a little girl from Czechoslovakia, who had died in a concentration camp. This suitcase of a child of the 1930s is helping children in Japan connect with, and know about others like her, thanks to Fumiko Ishioka, an educator and director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center.
But even before the book Hana’s Suitcase was published, much literature had been written about the Holocaust and its horrors. Many films have been made too. Of these, Anne Frank’s Diary, which chronicles her life in the concealed, tiny and cramped apartment which her family shared with another, has become legend. The young girl has poured out her dreams, aspirations and zest for life under the most trying circumstances. Sadly the hideout was discovered and she was deported to a concentration camp, where she succumbed to the brutal conditions. Reading her book, one feels admiration and affection for the young girl which override any other emotion.
Living through such privation and fear is terrible, especially when it is a child — and can easily give rise to negative emotions and feelings both in the victims and the readers, not to speak of bias in the writer’s words. To be able to rise above bitterness and hatred while making the stories fit enough for children, make this genre one of the most challenging ones to write. Just as Anne Frank…., which is an autobiographical account, many other books have been written based on real stories of child victims and survivors.
The Israeli children’s writer, Uri Orlev has written many books for children on the Holocaust. Himself a survivor of a concentration camp, his stories on the Holocaust with children as protagonists have been widely translated into many languages from the original Hebrew. He was about the same age as Anne Frank, when he had lived through it all, but unlike her, he had been liberated and sent to the then Palestine, now Israel. Having lived in hiding in Poland, one of the worst affected countries during the Holocaust, he writes with authenticity and an endearing sense of humour, weaving in drama and adventure – the staple of any children’s book. As the jury of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for the best children’s literature — which he won in 1996 – noted, “Whether his stories are set in the Warsaw Ghetto or his new country Israel, he never loses the perspective of the child he was. He writes with integrity and humor, in a way which is never sentimental [and] shows how children can survive without bitterness in harsh and terrible times.”
I have read the translated versions of three of his books – The Island on Bird Street, The man from the other side and Lydia, Queen of Palestine, and loved them all as they are woven so interestingly to transcend the horrors per se.
The Island on Bird Street which is semi-autobiographical, is thrilling and full of adventure, as it unfolds the story of the little boy Alex, who awaits the arrival of his father — taken away by the Nazis – much like the boy on the burning deck! He refuses to be rescued since his father had told him to wait for him in that shelled out building and might not find him if he left the building. As he waits, he has to avoid capture, scrounge for food, stay out of sight of neighbours who might rat about him or steal his food and do much worse. He makes himself a comfortable home with his pet mouse Snow, in the abandoned building and even finds love, when he makes contact with the girl on the Polish side beyond the ghetto wall! What comes through is not a chronicle of survival or horror – though there is enough of it – but the hardiness of spirit and the adventure of the young boy under such impossible conditions.
The Man from the other side is told from the perspective of Marek, a Polish boy, who is more of an observer than a victim. He gets to see life in the ghetto when he helps his stepfather clandestinely deliver food and other items to the Jews — working their way through the sewers of the city. He is shaken by the hopeless condition of the children inside the ghetto and feels deep compassion for them. He grows up into a man from the young teenager, in the few months that he makes the supplies — as he helps a Jew to his freedom, gets caught in the uprising of the Jews inside the ghetto and even helps smuggle a baby out of there. This is perhaps the one of Orlev’s books with the most violent scenes and death and yet it is not unfit for children, since the perspective all through, is that of a child.
Lydia, Queen of Palestine is about a Romanian Jewish girl who goes through the twin traumas of the separation of her parents and being relocated alone to Palestine to live in a kibbutz there. The spunky girl narrates her story with humour, making one almost forget the horrors of the times as one gets caught up with her pranks.
One book that haunts me with its story is The boy in Striped Pyjamas. Written by John Boyle, it tells the story of two little boys Bruno and Shmuel – the former the son of the commandant of ‘Out-with’ (Auschwitz), sent there by the Fury (Fuhrer) — and the latter a Jewish boy who had been deported there. The two, divided by miles of barbed wire, still manage to strike up a touching friendship without the knowledge of the commandant and his family or the guards of the camp. Bruno’s naiveté in believing that the children on the other side of the fence were happy because they had so many others to play with — while he is all alone in the big mansion — is endearing. The two never manage to convince each other of the misery of their respective lives, so sure each is that the other is having a wonderful time!
The age group for which it is meant is not mentioned, but I would say it is for teens. It has very little direct horror, but the implied horror is quite disturbing. The systematic dehumanization of the Jews is depicted in this story very effectively.
All the protagonists in these novels are children first – with normal lives despite living under such impossible conditions. Their innocence, playfulness and naiveté are endearing and yet they are very aware of the political situation (except maybe in The Boy in the…….), the plight of the Jews, the existence of the underground resistance to the Germans, and matters of survival like the bunkers that the Jews built and stocked with food and water to last for several months, and most of all — death. They take such things as having to do without basic amenities as much a part of life, as being betrayed by neighbours and the possibility of being captured. In The Island… Alex’s mother is taken away and never returns, but his ordeal of survival makes him take it in his stride. And yet, these children take life as it comes, finding ways to survive and even thrive under the circumstances, be it Hana, Anne Frank, Alex or Lydia and all those others who are depicted as stars in the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem.
Coming to films, I can only recall one of them off-hand, which is suitable for children. Remember that wonderful movie Life is beautiful? Roberto Benigni has used humour effectively to make something as terrible as even the Holocaust watchable. Based on a true story, the hero smuggles his little son into a concentration camp and makes an elaborate game out of it. The boy earns points for remaining hidden, not crying and or complaining, with the promise of getting to ride a tank if he earns enough points. The most poignant scene perhaps is where he goose-steps his way to his own execution to reassure his son who is watching him from his hiding place — not knowing that he would never see his father again.
When the theme is handled sensitively, with lots of adventure, thrill and humour thrown in for good measure, stories like these can be one of the ways to sensitise children to the sufferings of others. Life is not all about rosy things, though we would like to protect our children from suffering and depressing stuff. But unless we let them see the world around them in all its sweetness and ugliness, they will not be able to empathise with those less fortunate than them or even appreciate what they have. (Children and Sensitivity)
I would certainly recommend the above books (I have read them all, except for Hana’s Suitcase, for those of you who would like your kids to get to know about those unfortunate children, who were so different from them and yet so like them, for in the end, aren’t they all children?
Image credit: Homepage: www.yadvashem.org.