Writing for children about the Holocaust and antisemitism

Well, this is a big one, and not one I want to write about, in particular, but the Changeling is now 9 years old (how did that happen?) and the fact is that I have been asked a lot about this topic (I even sort of wrote about it before, over here), but also it keeps coming up because, sadly, antisemitism is in the news a lot lately. Because there’s a lot of it, you see, and it keeps surprising people by existing, and then we get the fun part where Jews point out that antisemitism has been around for a very long time, never went away, and, in fact, there are antisemitic underpinnings to a huge amount of our world today, right alongside the racism and misogyny, because antisemitism is racism (and misogyny is in everything, too, surprise!), and because putting down other people has always been a really great idea for those on top.

Personally, I dislike reading and hearing all of this, and some of it I even find objectionable. (I am not telling you to object to it; I’m speaking personally.)

Naturally, there’s the dislike that comes with hating it to be true. That’s the easy part. I can easily tell you that I’m sad and angry to see both the antisemitism and the surprise that it’s still around. I’m sad and angry that books such as Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews and David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count are necessary and relevant. I’m sad and angry that it’s necessary, even now, to have people point out that romance novels about an affair between a Nazi officer and a concentration camp inmate are horrific and shouldn’t be published, and why do we keep needing to say this? I’m offended that it’s necessary to articulate to real human beings who should absolutely know better that it’s offensive, cruel, and bad writing on every level. I’m furious with every school pushing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and banning Maus.

But that’s the easy part. I also find myself critiquing people doing good work: analyzing Dara Horn and scrutinizing David Baddiel. (More so Dara Horn than Baddiel; Jews Don’t Count was tighter. It was a polemic with one goal, one premise, and a clearly defined audience, so the only thing I can scrutinize there is its likelihood of success. Dara Horn had a broader scope, and People Love Dead Jews was collected as a range of essays written for different audiences. I would love to talk to her about, for example, Shakespeare because I’m so astonished she found anyone who didn’t consider Shakespeare an antisemite. We have not dissimilar backgrounds and I was more accustomed to being eagerly questioned about why on earth I, a Jew, was studying so many antisemites. People also seem to love to question live Jews about antisemites, fun game.)

Beyond that, I particularly loathe every helpful meme and Twitter thread about the antisemitic roots of everything, because while they’re (often, and presumably) correct to some degree, I don’t understand the point. Look, let’s admit it: memes are excellent for conveying that highest of all forms of humour, the noble pun, to advantage. Twitter is fabulous for sharing news about books and cats. But they are not great for matters that really reach straight through the surface of the contemporary world to peeling back layers of history and laying bare the raw and beating painful heart of how humans have denied the humanity of other humans.

So, think about it: how can pointing out that the modern imagery around witches has roots in antisemitic imagery (which is can certainly be demonstrated, though counterarguments can also be made) possibly do any good if you don’t simultaneously discuss the nuances of how to deal with what you’ve uncovered, which you really can’t in a meme or a Twitter thread because they’re so complex that Jews variously shrug, shout about, or ignore how to deal with those same implications? I think that while Dara Horn and I disagree on perceptions of Shakespeare’s antisemitism (and, look, I was assistant stage manager for a production of The Merchant of Venice and everyone agreed it was antisemitic and we worked on it anyway), we and most people would easily agree on Richard Wagner. Dude was absolutely an antisemite as well as a nasty human being in every possible way. I mean, one of the best bits of Wagner gossip I’ve seen was his breakup letter to the woman his wife told him to knock it off talking to (either cheating with her or trying to) declaring that he was going to miss talking to her… about himself. One can only hope that she snorted and thought, “Well, thank the Lord I won’t have to hear more from him after this– thanks, Cosima!” Despite the widely held view that he was an antisemitic shithead, there’s no consensus regarding the ethics of listening to and performing his work, which is magnificent and justly famous. So I have severe reservations about dramatically uncovering the antisemitic roots of everything without an incredibly clear understanding that dealing with living in a world in which almost everything does have some relationship to hatred of Jews is going to be complicated, unclear, and uncomfortable.

That, in fact, is the point: we live in a complicated, unclear, and uncomfortable world where humans have denied the humanity of other humans.

Oh! So, every kid in Canada singing the national anthem, “Oh! Canada,” is singing music by Calixa Lavallée, noted antisemite. The only thing going for him is that his music was empirically superior to the dreck composed by John Stafford Smith, which was plopped onto Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Look, if you want to try for purity from anything untouched by antisemitism, racism, and misogyny in your life, you may try, but I hope you won’t give the experiment a very long try because I want you to be able to survive. It’s not happening. You can only be your best self, and if you’re here and reading this because you want my point of view– I’m here to tell you that that’s what you need to teach your kids. You need to teach them that, yes, we live in a complicated, unclear, and uncomfortable world where people have done terrible things and others have done wonderful things, and in this world, you can only aspire to be your best self.

You know who describes it best? James Baldwin.

“…I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.” (“Autobiographical Notes,” Notes of a Native Son.) But he continues: “At the same time I had not other heritage which I could possibly hope to use– I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe.” (p. 6-7)

Well, whew. The shock of recognition I felt, reading that first passage out of doors in Paris, my first trip to Europe after the pandemic, was profound. And yet, days later, I saw the name of Fromental Halévy on the Palais Garnier and I felt another jolt: we Jews have had a true impact, not in the way we’re accused of– not controlling the banks and media and lasers from space– but in resilience and contributions to writing and the arts, in ways we often ignore in our own right.

Where are the stories for children about Halévy and his family? Why nothing on the great Jewish violinists (well, with one exception I’d rather not discuss) of the 20th century? I did recently see a picture book biography of a scientist I greatly admire, Vera Rubin, but then it didn’t mention anywhere that she was Jewish. It wasn’t by a Jewish author or illustrator. I can only imagine everyone involved thought it was irrelevant. I disagreed. I knew that if I shared it with a Jewish child and they saw that she was Jewish, they’d be thrilled. I also knew that if I shared it with a non-Jewish children, and they saw she was Jewish, they’d learn something cool about her, and they’d see a contribution to the world we share by a Jewish woman.

Storytime! Let me tell you about Leopold Auer, often referred to with respect as Professor Auer, the great pedagogue who was a high-level teacher of many violinists– including the young Jascha Heifetz. He stated with enormous pride that you could never tell his students by listening to them, since he did not teach them to sound like him, but rather elicited from them their own best sound. What a wonderful message for every parent and child to hear! But he, himself, though born a Jew, converted later in life to Russian Orthodoxy, presumably in order to navigate his life and career more easily. However, he wanted to teach everyone who was a good student, including, for example, the young Jascha Heifetz, who was a Jew. There was a problem: in order for Jews to get permission to live outside the Pale of Settlement, one had to be enrolled in a program, for example, studying with the great Professor Auer at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. Jascha Heifetz was too young to live alone in St. Petersburg, but he couldn’t exactly commute to the conservatory and his family wasn’t allowed to live in St. Petersburg since they wouldn’t be the ones studying with Professor Auer. So Leopold Auer quietly signed up Jascha’s father as his student, put all the bureaucratic stuff in order, handled the politics, and taught whom he wanted to teach. As for Heifetz’s family and stories, the consequences of this bit of work– well, there’s so much there! Listen to any recording of Heifetz and judge for yourself. But even this small anecdote, there you have it: yes, antisemitism, but also resilience, defiance, sadness, beauty, grief, and triumph. A perfect story.

Meanwhile, Holocaust stories and literature for children, Anne Frank everything, pile up. Teachers continue to use The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas in class.

I can think of one work of historical fiction for young people I consider genuinely top notch, and it is incredibly devastating and should by no means be given to any children under the age of 12 to read. Any parent or teacher should read it first, and then be on hand to talk it through with a child or student as needed. And it is not set in the actual Holocaust, and doesn’t have a satisfying ending. This is important. You cannot write a novel about the Holocaust, set in the midst of the crimes, for children of any age which has a satisfying ending and is true, because it must end with escape, survival, or something of that kind, and it was so incredibly unlikely. The book I will name as a good book is Alan & Naomi by Myron Levoy. My heart was entirely broken by the end. I think it was harder to read than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which left me sobbing. I can’t call to mind another novel involving the Holocaust I would recommend.

What is interesting, of course, is that Alan & Naomi felt true and yet untraumatizing. It was hard, but I could handle it. The historical fiction left me listening for the Gestapo by night, frozen with terror at a light passing my window or a distant dog’s bark. (I love dogs.) Children need the truth. Literature should be true.

And so when my daughter recently read about “the death camps in Poland” in a history book, she asked me what they were. I didn’t answer immediately, because first I needed to swear to high heaven internally that these questions always go to me, not her father. (Well, I guess I signed up for it when I became the primary homeschool teacher…) But then I answered her honestly. And I also asked her not to go reading for more details because I do not want her to see the pictures, read first-hand accounts, and I absolutely don’t want her to get fictionalized information. I told her very directly that two things are important: a) one must absolutely know the real truth of what happened and what crimes were committed against the Jewish people, and b) one should not be pushed to learn more than one’s capable of handling yet, because that would result in hurting the learner without doing any good either to the memories of those who were killed or to promote a better world in future.

I felt intensely fortunate (after I’d finished swearing) because as a homeschooling parent I am able to navigate my child’s learning level here. It’s nothing to do with what’s age-appropriate and everything to do with what’s appropriate for the kid in question. My kid is one who needs honest facts, no dramatization, and without too much imagery. Maybe you know your kid and are able to handle it accordingly, which is fantastic, if so. There are also plenty of cases where schools do a better job than an individual parent would of navigating this, but I tend to be leery of big class things particularly at an elementary school age.

Note: if you are looking for something for an elementary school class, see this post, which details why I like these two picture books in particular, as a way to approach antisemitism and the Holocaust with elementary school children. Neither is actual fiction, one is directly historical.

And yet, I want to come back to James Baldwin, and for a bigger reason.

James Baldwin lived in and wrote about Harlem. One of his essays in Notes of a Native Son, which I already mentioned above, deals in depth with the relationships between the Jewish and Black residents of Harlem, “The Harlem Ghetto.” Baldwin draws pictures with his words which are so vivid and ring so true that you wonder how he does it in so few words. And what he says in that essay, and says with so few paragraphs, feels almost as true today (though the context is so different– and yet so painfully similar) as it must have when it was first written.

At the time, he says, the Jews of Harlem were small tradesmen, rent collectors, pawnbrokers, and so on, and the population they were taking this money from was Black. Thus, relations were strained. This did not, he added, extend to individual friendships, and he himself, of course, had many friendships with Jews, including the very Sol Stein who got him to put together Notes of a Native Son, the collection of essays in which “The Harlem Ghetto” is published. But, overall, the murmurs of the more privileged class against each the Black population and the Jews were embedded in the mutual consciousness– and, of course, each accepted the inferiority assigned to the self, too– thus: “… the American white Gentile has two legends serving him at once: he has divided these minorities and he rules.” (p. 71)

A bitter truth.

I’ve heard too much, recently, in bite-sized stories, snatches of pain plastered as gaudy outrage. I want thoughtful nuance, now, because it’s what we need. Baldwin had no qualms about demonstrating his own people’s imperfections all while in the same breath looking the equally imperfect reader in the eye and seriously demanding that we recall that everyone, no matter how imperfect, deserves respect and dignity. Why? Because the world is complicated, unclear, and uncomfortable, and that’s where he live.

So, no, I don’t really have any book recommendations (beyond those linked), but I do have a recommendation for a mental adjustment. Just recall, for yourself, that we live in a world of imperfect humans, and, always, certain humans have treated others as less than human, and this is embedded in our world, all around us, and we can’t change or scrub that away, no matter how many spots we rub out. Recall that we call this “inhumanity,” which means that the ones who are treating other people as things are the ones who are losing their humanity in the process.

It is the study of the humanities, as a professor once reminded me, that teaches us to behave with humanity. Thus, even in teaching your children to read (maybe they can read Langston Hughes?), to listen to music (“did you know this violinist was a Jew from Russia who…?”), or to admire art (my daughter loves Chinese porcelain after reading Grace Lin), they can learn all about the richness every human being has to offer– and that will fit them to reject the ideologies of those who would have them see certain humans as less-than.