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The Power of One Story: Using Picture Books to Teach the Lessons of the Holocaust

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Six million is a number most adults cannot comprehend. Yet, when we reduce that number to one, to one single story, we may find ourselves beginning to understand the impact of such a number and what it represents. When teaching students about significant world events with difficult subject matter, such as the Holocaust, numbers and statistics lose meaning. When we approach difficult subject matter through the lens of just one story, it is more likely that students will empathize with what they are seeing and hearing, and from there, begin to understand.

Holocaust Education Week falls during the week of November 3-10, 2019, which may be an appropriate time to incorporate some of these books into your classroom. When confronted with teaching significant world events, such as the Holocaust, the magnitude of it can be daunting and formidable. Where do I begin? How do I get students to understand that which is incomprehensible? Such questions should not deter us from educating students, even though the subject matter is difficult.

The following books offer great opportunities for reading aloud to older elementary age students, and because they are picture books, which are shorter in length, allow for rich discussion and meaningful questions to be asked and shared. The classroom connection included with each text description may assist you in planning for further discussion and learning beyond the text.

The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer and illustrated by Gillian Newland (suitable for grades 5–8). Any list of Holocaust literature for young people would not be complete without at least one book by Kathy Kacer. This story is about a young boy named Werner, separated from his family and imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He is befriended by his bunkmate also separated from his family, a man by the name of Herr Levin, who was a magician before the war, and whose magic shows continue in the camp, at the command of the Nazi guards. Of course one would ask how magic shows could exist in a concentration camp, but it is the magic that keeps Herr Levin alive at Auschwitz, and he realizes that his life hangs in the balance with every performance he gives to the Nazis. This is a story about magic, but it is more of a story about kindness. Kindness that exists even when you have nothing. Ultimately, it is through friendship and acts of kindness that may have helped save the lives of these two individuals. At the end of the book, details about the real Werner and Herr Levin are shared. Students will enjoy engaging with this text, especially when they realize the truth behind it.

Classroom Connection: This book has underlying themes of the power of kindness and the value of friendship. What qualities do you value in a friend? You could even create a word cloud based on students responses that could be displayed.

The Promise, written by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe and illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal (suitable for grades 4–8), is an amazing true story of survival. It is the story of two sisters, Toby and Rachel, who have promised their parents, as they were taken away by the Nazis, that they would always stay together. One sister is given three gold coins by her father who instructs her to only use them for something important. As the girls suffer through sickness, loss, and hard labour while they are imprisoned in Auschwitz, they are able to use the coins and fulfill the promise made to their parents of remaining together. The illustrations in this book are worth mentioning, as they add so much to the narrative by combining snippets of real photographs to show emotion and the depth of the characters’ feelings.

Classroom Connection: How do the illustrations in this text contribute to the depth of the characters presented in the story? Students can even create their own pictures modeled after the style in the book in order to communicate a mood or theme.

Fania’s Heart, written by Anne Renaud and illustrated by Richard Rudnicki (suitable for grades 4–8), is a beautiful story that emerges within the horrors of a concentration camp. It is the story of a woman’s experience in Auschwitz and the bonds formed between fellow prisoners who, once strangers, become a family despite their different backgrounds, languages, and countries of origin. It is the story of ultimate kindness in the face of evil, with the timeless message of the power and impact of words. It is also an amazing story of an artifact, made simply by scrounged materials, and which became a symbol of resistance, friendship, and hope. This book concludes with details and photographs of the real women that form the basis of this beautiful story.

Classroom Connection: This is a wonderful book to discuss and explore the theme of language and the power of words. Hate begins with words, but so do love, acceptance, and kindness. Asking the question, How might the words we use each day impact other people?, may elicit good discussion and allow opportunities to self-reflect. As a follow-up to this book, I had students experiment with folding a single piece of paper into a heart shape, much like the heart in the story. They could even write words on each folded heart as they consider the question above.

The Brave Princess and Me is another book written by Kathy Kacer and illustrated by Juliana Kolesova (suitable for grades 3–5), and is inspired by the amazing true story of Princess Alice of Greece. Princess Alice was deaf, and as a result, had experienced discrimination by people who thought deafness made someone less smart. But when she takes in a Jewish mother and her daughter during World War Two and hides them in her home, she risks her own life to save theirs. This is another incredible story of selflessness and kindness, and how, even under immense danger, there were people who were brave enough to save the lives of strangers.

Classroom Connection: The real world connection to the royal family may be interesting to students. This book could also spark discussion of the term “righteous among the nations,” which was a designation given to non-Jews who risked their lives in order to protect Jews during the Holocaust. There are many fascinating stories that explore this topic, and students could delve deeper by exploring biographical text about some of these brave people.

The lessons and legacy of the Holocaust must be taught, especially as we continue to see and experience hatred and intolerance across the globe. Shockingly, we find that the lessons of yesterday are still being learned today. When we boil it down to single stories, we take the impersonal and make it personal. We take the huge number down to one. We can all remember one story, one name, one experience. And if we can do that, then the lessons of the Holocaust continue to be passed on for future generations to learn from.



Jennifer Byrne is a teacher-librarian at a K–8 elementary school in the York Region District School Board. She is passionate about using the power of stories to reach young people. You can follow all the happenings of her library on Twitter @WilshireLibrary.

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November 7, 2019
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