- The Holocaust and Literature for Children
In April 2004, the Seattle International Children's Festival presented Children of the Beast, a stunning stage adaptation of David Grossman's novel See Under: Love. As it transformed a very long, complex narrative into a one-act play (featuring two actors and an ensemble of puppets), the production raised a host of questions about children's literature and the Holocaust.1 For starters, it posed problems of audience. The show was clearly not for children. Indeed, management cautioned that Children of the Beast was intended only for ages fourteen and older. It was unclear, however, how appropriate the play might be even for a young adult audience. At one performance that I attended, the crowd consisted mostly of high school students, and they behaved very badly. Noisy, rambunctious, and inattentive, they formed a striking contrast to the adults at a separate evening show who were riveted by the brilliant staging and watched with rapt attention. Similar incidents of teenage clowning were widely reported when screenings of Schindler's List were first embraced as a pedagogical tool in the 1990s. Educators like to believe that exposure to cultural events has a civilizing effect and that [End Page 174] exposure to Holocaust materials will instill special respect and sensitivity in young people. Yet, at some level, no sensible adult can help but ask, why do we put ourselves through this aggravation?
The play also raised questions about how much we should tell children. One of Grossman's main themes is the anguish caused to nine-year-old Momik when his parents tell him too little. They are survivors, reticent to speak of their past, and the son reacts by reading obsessively on the Holocaust and suffering an overdose of information. While the silences in his family are troubling, his overexposure to facts is doubly damaging. Eventually, his deep, early unhappiness leads him as a grown-up to brood about what to teach his own son and how to prepare children to face a hostile world.2 The play also focuses centrally on children's stories. The mature Momik ponders what life could have been like for Anshel Wasserman, a children's writer interned in a concentration camp. In one scenario, he imagines Wasserman softening the heart of a cruel Nazi commandant by spinning adventure stories and rescue tales based on his characters, a band of friends called the "Children of the Heart." Grossman's work thus invites us to consider what happens when the conventions of juvenile fiction combine with Holocaust themes. Will an overly simplistic, naïve message emerge? Alternatively, will there be a grotesque collision of values with narrative results too intense for younger children? Or could a convergence of concerns with children's literature and the Holocaust chart promising new artistic territory?3
Questions on children's literature and the Holocaust, Holocaust pedagogy, and the boundaries between adult and child texts have arisen with increasing insistence in recent years. Since the mid-1980s, there has been an explosion of imaginative writing for young people on the topic of the Shoah. Furthermore, Holocaust education has been mandated in many states in the U.S. and has spread around the globe. Not surprisingly, scholarship in the area of children's literature has readily responded to these trends. A substantial body of secondary works is now available, including interpretation, literary history, and theoretical musings as well as study guides and reference sources. Three book-length studies of particular note have appeared: Sparing the Child: Grief and the Unspeakable in Youth Literature about Nazism and the Holocaust, by Hamida Bosmajian; My [End Page 175] Mother's Voice: Children, Literature, and the Holocaust, by Adrienne Kertzer; and Representing the Holocaust in Children's Literature, by Lydia Kokkola. Two of these titles have earned special honors in their...