Teaching a delicate subject like the Holocaust requires commitment, hard work and know-how. Even more so when using literature as a pedagogical tool, since many fiction books require clarifications. Since a thorough analysis of Holocaust literature is impossible in the confines of this article, the objective of the following text is to recommend four memoirs written by survivors that can be used in Canadian K to 12 classrooms.
Let’s start with one of the first memoirs written by a survivor: If This Is a Man (1947). Put on paper by Primo Levi, an Italian Jew detained in Monowitz for nearly a year, the manuscript was written at a feverish pace in only ten months. It was not, with its 1500 sales, a commercial success at publication. But that tells us more of the unpreparedness of the world to confront a dark and recent event like the Holocaust than of the quality of Levi’s book. What’s fascinating about If This Is a Man is its main theme: the dehumanization process perpetrated by the Nazis in their camps and the struggle of the inmates to retain their dignity. This book is not centered on the SS-Totenkopfverbände (the SS organization responsible for the Nazi concentration camps) or how men could become as cruel as to create a death factory. If This Is a Man is more an overview of the social history of Monowitz and places the prisoners at the centre of it all; it’s about the struggles and degradation of morale that affected all inmates. It’s also notable because it was written when Levi still had a good recollection of what happened to him. Its undeniable quality has been widely recognized ever since and, as such, was put on Le Monde list of the 100 Books of the Century in 1999.
The year 1947 also saw another quite interesting book hit the bookshelves: the original version of The Diary of a Young Girl. It contains the writings of a young German Jew named Anne Frank. In exile with her family since the Führer’s rise to power in her homeland, she had lived a normal life in the Netherlands until the Wehrmacht invasion of 1940. On her 13th birthday, in 1942, Anne received a blank diary; that would prove to be the genesis of her posthumous book. On July 5, 1942, her sister Margot received a summons to report to a Nazi work camp. The next day, the Frank family went into hiding; they lived for the next two years in a secret room at the back of Otto Frank’s (Anne’s father) company building in Amsterdam. It’s there that Anne would write her diary. Unfortunately, the Franks were discovered in August 1944 and sent first to Westerbork then to Auschwitz. Anne died from typhus, at the tender age of fifteen, in Bergen-Belsen. However, her manuscript survived and was given to her father after the war. Published in more than 60 languages, the diary is written (or redrafted since Anne reworked her manuscript in 1944) to “Kitty” the name she gave to her diary. The Diary of a Young Girl is an appealing book for teenagers. Firstly, because of the age at which its author wrote her book, young students highly relate to it as it describes emotional growth amid hardship. Secondly, it contains important messages concerning the right to freedom and the importance of respecting each other. Finally, this diary can help teachers transmute the tragedy of Anne’s life into a human lesson about tolerance and the absolute need to treat all human beings decently. In short, its use is strongly recommended.
Another captivating memoir to use in the classroom is Night by Elie Wiesel (1956 for the original Yiddish version). Often used in Canadian classrooms, and rightly so, this short story depicts the horrible things that happened to Elie Wiesel and his family from their ghettoization in Sighet, Transylvania, in April 1944 to the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945. Through the reading of Night, the students learn more about the ghettos, the deportation of Jews in cattle cars, the selection process of extermination camps, the way the Third Reich transformed inmates into slaves and the death marches. What makes Night effective is the simple and blunt language in which it is written. It also does a great job to present its readers with the different steps that led from the ghettos to the crematoriums. Lastly, Night can complete The Diary of a Young Girl as it begins where Frank’s book ends.
The last memoir of this short survey is The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’ Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45. Published in Polish in 1946, the English-speaking world had to wait until 1999 to get a translation. It tells the incredible story of Władysław Szpilman, a Polish Jew, who managed to survive life in a ghetto, avoid deportation to certain death and outlive the Warsaw uprisings. The trial and tribulations of Szpilman are particularly revealing as they display different facets of life in a ghetto. More importantly, The Pianist is thought-provoking because it showcases the non-Manichean nature of WWII insofar as it presents us with “good” and “bad” Jews, Poles and Germans.
No consensus exists concerning the age at which students should be confronted with the Holocaust narrative. In Israel, children start learning about the Holocaust in kindergarten, but in Quebec they learn about it when they are 16 to 17 years old. Personally, I would wait until students are at least 14 to 15 years old. I think that children are not intellectually and emotionally equipped to deal with the Holocaust at a young age. The most recent research of Jean-François Bossy (Enseigner la Shoah à l’âge démocratique. Quels enjeux?, 2007), suggests that teachers shouldn’t confront kids with images of corpses or public executions. Personally, I only show pictures of boxes of teeth or piles of shoes to my students: they get the idea with much less potential for trauma.
To conclude, the Holocaust is a multifaceted historical event that is anything but simple to address with students. However, a better understanding of this human tragedy is attainable through the reading of memoirs written by those who lived through this moral catastrophe. In this brief overview, short books were presented which covered varied aspects of the Holocaust such as life in the camps, in the ghettos or in hiding. They can all be useful to the educator who wants to attempt the daunting task of teaching the Holocaust. A task that is necessary in order to accomplish one’s duty of remembrance.
Martin Destroismaisons previously contributed an article to Canadian Teacher Magazine entitled “Holocaust Movies in the Classroom.” It can be found here: https://canadianteachermagazine.com/2015/01/14/holocaust-movies-classroom/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Martin Destroismaisons holds a B.A. in Education and has been teaching in Quebec for more than a decade. He presently works in Montreal at the Collège Saint-Louis. He also holds a M.A. in History with a specialization in German history and attended the Yad Vashem International School for Holocaust Studies (Jerusalem) and the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer National Conference for Educators (USHMM in Washington D.C.).
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2018 issue.