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A New Algorithm in Evil: Children's Literature in a Post-Holocaust World
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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.3 (2000) 378-401



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A New Algorithm in Evil:
Children's Literature in a Post-Holocaust World

Elizabeth R. Baer


For me this is not the age of "post-modernism," it is the post-Holocaust age. That is the salient marker of our present world . . . .

--Sander L. Gilman (201)

About midway through Claude Lanzmann's ten-hour film Shoah, a Jewish barber recounts to the off-camera interviewer how he was forced by the Nazis to ply his trade inside Treblinka. Day after day, Abraham Bomba cut the hair of other Jews, participating in the charade that they were being "cleaned up" after their long train journey. In fact, he knew that the showers in the adjoining room emitted gas, not water, but his own life was at risk, and he survived by silently cutting hair. One day, however, the inevitable happened: several people from his hometown arrived at the gas chamber. Such familiar faces, such an unfamiliar, nightmarish place. Bomba begins to recount the incident: "And when they saw me, they started asking me, Abe this and Abe that--'What's going to happen to us?' What could you tell them? What could you tell?" (Lanzmann 116), Bomba asks the viewers plaintively, in his heavily accented English. Bomba then begins narrating the story of one of the other barbers whose own wife and sister arrived at the gas chamber. At this point, Bomba breaks down with emotion, unable to continue the story. When he finally resumes, he has switched from first to third person: "They could not tell them this was the last time they stay alive" (117). Despite the mounting discriminations and degradations experienced by Jews in the Third Reich, despite the forced journey and humiliations that these particular Jews had just suffered, despite the fact [End Page 378] that they were standing in the gas chambers of Treblinka, they could not encompass the concept of mass destruction. And so they went to their deaths.

This incident suggests to me several quintessential questions remaining to us about the Holocaust: Did it introduce to the human race a new depth of evil? An evil so profound that those living through it could not comprehend it? Finally, could not believe it? Is the calculated destruction of six million people the result of the collision of a madman with economic hard times? Or is it a manifestation of the evil of which we are all capable? Could it happen again elsewhere? Though it is outside the focus of this paper to provide evidence for the assertion that the Holocaust is unique, 1 let me suggest that this "newness" turns on the targeting of the Jews, as well as the Roma, for complete extermination, on the staggering numbers (six million Jewish victims and five million others), and the integration of the irrational impulses of nationalism and racism with the extreme "rationalism" of industrialism and technology that permitted killing on such a mass scale. If, indeed, the Holocaust represents a new algorithm in horror, in evil, in the foulness of human nature, then the next question becomes: how do we talk with children about this evil?

Children's literature has a long tradition of wrestling with the question of presenting evil to children: the Puritans did it in spades, hoping to save small souls. The New England Primer, "the staple lesson book for most young colonists and early Americans," began its alphabet with this mnemonic: "In Adam's fall we sinned all." Verses accompanying the X and Y warn of the wages of sin: "Xerxes did die And so must I / While youth do chear, Death may be near" (Demers and Moyles 29-33). The Victorians tended toward the use of fantasy to sugarcoat their lessons about the dangers of the world. With the creation of Young Adult literature, we seem to have come full circle: books about drugs, racism, teenage prostitution, and government intervention make clear what evil awaits the unwary. Yet books for children and young adults on...