Today is officially Holocaust Remembrance Day. When I taught 5th grade, I had a great history curriculum. It started with Henry Ford and went to present day. I got to teach some fun things! I also had to teach about the holocaust. How do you teach 10-12 year olds about such a horrible thing?
I wanted to help them visualize the magnitude of the number of lives lost, so I came up with the idea of a memory wall. You’ve seen walls in stores where people have purchased cut-out stars, balloons, etc. to support a cause and they write their name on it. Well, I wanted to do something similar, but what shape? A wall of gravestones would be rather morbid in the elementary school hallway, even though it was a very serious thing that happened. I considered the Star of David, but not everyone who was killed from the holocaust was Jewish. I finally decided on a simple flower cut out. I made templates, and when the students were done with their work, they could trace and cut out flowers. Then they wrote “In memory of…” on the flower and filled in a type of person. For example, “In memory of a mother,” or “In memory of a tailor,” or “In memory of a baby.” We filled a lot of wall space with these flowers. I’m not sure how it impacted the students, other than to think of someone other than themselves. But it impacted me. I’m pretty sure we got a couple hundred up there at least, and that was such a microscopic drop in the proverbial bucket!
There was one book in particular that I read each year to my students when we discussed World War 2 and the Holocaust, and another that I read excerpts from because some of it was too mature for my age students. The first was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and the other The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen.
Number the Stars is appropriate for upper elementary and on and is a fiction version of how the Danish people saved thousands upon thousands of Jews. It is told from a young girl’s perspective. The story is well done and usually captivated my students. My last year we actually rewrote it into a play, made a set of sorts, and performed the play for parents and other classes. It’s a great book to use with your child to discuss how it would have felt, what it would be like to be in hiding, what it’s like to help someone else when they are hurting or in danger, and more.
I would save The Devil’s Arithmetic for junior highers or above for independent reading or completely reading the story. It has been a few years since I read it, and you may decide it’s appropriate for a sixth grader, depending on the child. It was also made into a tv movie that I purchased and used excerpts in my classroom. I love that Yolen starts with a character that is rather insolent and uncaring about her family’s experiences through the holocaust, because we get to watch her transformation through the story. This book is another good one for discussing hard topics. What would you do if you were in a concentration camp? How would you survive? Would you have courage to help someone else?
As far as adult historical fiction goes, I have enjoyed a lot of it when it comes to World War 2. One author, Jack Cavanaugh, wrote with a twist in his Songs in the Night series. He wrote from the viewpoint of a pastor who is hesitant to join the resistance because of all the good Hitler has done for the Germans. From our vantage point decades later, we wonder how someone would even question. But if you had lived it and seen your country turn around economically, you might not be so quick to intervene when the tiny changes were being made.
Have you come across any books about this era that were well-written? Do share. And, again, let us remember.