Article

Christian Considerations for Choosing Books about the Holocaust

by Martha Mahtani and Bill Boerman-Cornell

The Holocaust perpetuated on the Jewish people by the German Nazi party during World War II has inspired a remarkable amount of excellent literature. Middle school and high school English teachers are quick to recognize the interest their students have for this era in history and are quick to use books about the Holocaust. But how is a teacher supposed to choose between such books as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Book Thief, and The Plot to Kill Hitler?

This is the question that came up during an independent study that Martha (an Education Major at Trinity Christian College) undertook with Bill (her professor). It occurred to both of us that sometimes the drive to use such a book is the deep desire to share excellent literature with our students, but we also wondered if it would make sense to consider the basis for such decisions a bit more deeply.

Martha came up with a list of books about the Holocaust that were appropriate for middle school or high school, were recommended by teachers, and seemed to have potential for use in an English or language arts classroom. She read each of them and, in discussion with Bill (who reread some of them as well), came up with a list of elements that Christian teachers might want to consider when selecting a book about the Holocaust to use in their classroom. Together, we narrowed the list to five representative books that would give an idea of the range of elements to think about when choosing a book.

We hope that the following considerations may help teachers make the difficult choice of which book or books to use.  To illustrate our ideas, we included some charts that we developed while considering the five representative books. If a box on the chart is blank, we didn’t find anything that pertained to this category in the book. The considerations are based on our opinions. You are welcome to rank these books differently according to your own preferencesor even to have your students rank them. The topics we suggest are worth considering, however, may be useful as you and your students consider the texts. We trust doing so may help you get a clearer handle on what makes these books great in different ways and also on what makes some of these books better for certain purposes than others.

Authenticity

It is important, of course, that a book come across to students as authentic. Middle school and high school students are good at spotting moments of inauthenticity. We considered two aspects of authenticity. First, is the book historically authentic? That is to say, is it not only factual, but does it also seem authentic to the time period it depicts in terms of the language and attitudes? Second, does the book seem narratively authentic? That is to say, does the voice of the narrator (or the dialogue) not only seem real and life-like, but does it seem genuine in the context it portrays with regard to the emotion and tension of that time?

 

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Hiding Place

The Book Thief

Maus I and Maus II

The Plot to Kill Hitler

Historical

 Includes detailed descriptions of suffering in concentration camps. Includes detailed discussions of concentration camps, air raids, death marches, and torture of the Jews. Includes supplemental timeline.  Includes details of poverty and penny-pinching, visits to real concentration camps, eyewitness descriptions of treatment of Jews, and descriptions of both Polish sympathizers and Nazis.  Includes supplemental timeline. Includes detailed descriptions of treatment of Jews.Includes accurate timeline of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Narrative

  

Depicts real-life emotions as Death seems to feel hurt, sorrow, joy, excitement, etc.

Depicts real-life reactions and emotions.

Depicts Bonhoeffer’s true moral struggle with honesty.

While we don’t mean to imply that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas isn’t authentic, there were no moments in it that stood out or gave the impression of a particularly authentic portrayal of the Holocaust itself.  In stories about the Holocaust, authenticity is especially important because skeptics are actively questioning the authenticity of the event. Books that evince authenticity are more likely to be believable and to allow students to be absorbed more completely in the narrative of the book. A teacher developing any unit might consider using multiple texts and asking students which they think are the most authentic and why authenticity is important in reading, but it is especially true when reading about the Holocaust.

Perspective

In English/language arts education, we often use point-of-view and perspective interchangeably. Though point-of-view refers pretty narrowly to who is telling the story, perspective is a bigger-picture idea that refers to the vantage point, both literally and figuratively, from which a story is seen. If we consider the Harry Potter series, for examplethey are told in third person point-of-view; that is to say, it is told by an outside storyteller who refers to Harry and his friends in the third person. Most chapters, however, are told from a vantage point that is close to Harry. We see things from where he stands. We hear his thoughts far more often than we do anyone else’s. And of course, that also means that we see the events unfolding in those stories from his perspective—his understanding and interpretation color the way we perceive characters, plot movement, and even themes.

 

 

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Hiding Place

The Book Thief

Maus I and Maus II

The Plot to Kill Hitler

First Person

 

Narrator tells her own story (for the most part).

Death tells the story as the narrator talking to the reader.

Narrator tells his own story (for the most part).

 

Third Person

Narrator tells Bruno’s story.

 

  

Narrator tells Bonhoeffer’s story.

Multi-perspectival

 

Narrator switches between Corrie and other characters.

Some stories are told from Liesel’s and Rudy’s perspectives.

Some stories are told from Art’s and Vladek’s perspectives.

 

Reading from different perspectives helps students not only understand the events more fully but also understand the people seeing those events. The Hiding Place, for example, tells the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of Corrie ten Boom, who is part of the Dutch resistance. Though she herself is not Jewish, she is also fearful of being caught by the Nazis. The Book Thief takes a remarkably interesting perspective. It is told by the personification of Death—who is able to see things from a sweeping overhead view and is especially aware of the numbers of people dying in the war; at the same time, he takes a special interest in Liesel. Death is able to show the deep horrors of war, both in vast numbers and through the individual fears and pains of a young girl. Books about the Holocaust give students an opportunity to think deeply about perspective and how much it matters in telling a story. They might also think about why, as Christians, it is important to hear the stories of those whose perspectives are different from ours.

Political Orientation

The United States is a world where politics is largely polarized and largely binary. In America, someone can support either the Democrats or the Republicans. Although there are actually a range of positions from moderate to right- or left-wing, our discourse assumes that everyone holds one position or the other. Holocaust literature presents a greater range of political positions. These include Germans who are in favor of, in opposition to, or oppressed by the Nazi party; those who are actively members of resistance movements; those from other countries, like Poland, who apparently sympathize with the Nazis, and the Americans, who at first choose not to enter the war and eventually become part of the allied opposition to the Nazis. 

 

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Hiding Place

The Book Thief

Maus I and Maus II

The Plot to Kill Hitler

Nazi Germany

Bruno is from a German home but ignorant of the political situation.

The ten Booms hide Jewish people from the Nazis.

Characters are frightened and mostly abide by Nazi laws but choose to hide a Jewish man. 

Vladek is from Germany, but he is Jewish and suffers for it. 

Bonhoeffer is from Germany but decides to conspire against the Nazis. 

Resistance Movements

 

Corrie and her family are part of the Netherlands resistance.

 

Vladek travels to Holland but does not participate in the resistance.

Bonhoeffer is part of the resistance movement in Germany.

Polish Sympathizers

Bruno befriends a boy in a concentration camp in Poland.

  

Polish sympathizers appear as pigs.  Vladek disguises himself and Anya as Polish sympathizers at one point. 

Bonhoeffer works with Polish resistance groups in Germany.

America

   

Vladek moves to America after the war.

Art is born and raised there. 

Bonhoeffer has contacts in America who support his resistance efforts.

Discussing political positions can present an interesting chance to talk about morality in politics. When is it better to work for good within a corrupt society? When is it appropriate to join the resistance to that society? Can a Christian consider murder if it would cripple an evil regime? Students can address these questions more civilly when talking about a book and about a period in the past than they can when speaking about our own political turmoil. 

Appropriateness

When we talk of whether books are appropriate for particular grade levels, we may be referring to the reading level of the book or perhaps to whether the book contains vulgar words or descriptions of sex or violence. What is behind these second concerns, on some level, is an urge to keep our students safe (and perhaps to keep their parents safe). Of course, when we are reading about the Holocaust, we are reading about a horrible genocide cruelly perpetuated upon a people identified by their belief in the God of Moses. It is difficult to imagine a book about the Holocaust that would not challenge and disquiet students deeply. In fact, we would hope that our students, confronted with the reality of what Hitler and Nazi Germany did, would be deeply offended, enraged, and challenged. In some ways, that makes the question of appropriateness seem a strange one to address.

First, though, we need to think about why we would want to consider reading about the Holocaust at all. One way to answer that question is to think about the Bible. This Book, which we say we love, is filled with descriptions of humanity, broken by sin, at its worst. Within the pages of the Bible we find stories about perverted sexuality (Lot and his daughters), senseless violence (Jephthah sacrificing his daughter), and ultimately the most important story of violence performed on an innocent person in the history of the world (Jesus’s death on the cross). One of the things that books do is tell the truth. God commands us to do this when he tells us not to bear false witness—to actively tell the truth. 

 

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Hiding Place

The Book Thief

Maus I and Maus II

The Plot to Kill Hitler

Romance

  

Kissing

Dating

Marriage

 

Language

  

Some vulgar words

Taking God’s name in vain

Some vulgar words

Taking God’s name in vain

 

Imagery

Descriptions of concentration camps

Violent and cruel punishment for disobedience

Descriptions of concentration camps

Violent and cruel punishment for hiding Jews

Descriptions of death marches, air raids, hunger, torture, and imprisonment

Descriptions of concentration camps, packed cattle-car trains, starvation, and hunger

 

Difficult Vocabulary

  

Occasional higher vocabulary 

Words written as they sounded when spoken (Vladek’s accent and occasional Yiddish words)

 

Reading in school is different from a lot of other reading we do. In school, we have the opportunity to discuss what we read, so it is important to know what is in the books we read—not so that we can avoid reading them but so that we can design our lessons and unit plans in such a way that we make the most of any discussion that can grow from books.

Emotional Response

One way that literature about the Holocaust is different from history books about the Holocaust is that literature deals not only with the actions of human beings but also with what they feel. Books not only allow us to read about other people and the emotions they felt; literature also evokes emotions within the reader. When we consider a unit about the Holocaust, two questions we might ask ourselves are, What do we want our students to feel? How do we want them to react? In light of this, it is important to consider the emotions contained within the books we choose.

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Hiding Place

The Book Thief

Maus I and Maus II

The Plot to Kill Hitler

Anger/Hatred

 

Corrie’s sister hates the Nazis while Corrie wants to still love them.

Rudy, Rosa, and Death all hate the Nazis. 

Art hates the Nazis because of what they have done to his father. 

 

Sorrow

Bruno’s father is sad about what happened to his son. 

Many characters experience sadness over the death of loved ones. 

Many characters experience sadness over the death of loved ones. 

Vladek understands and grieves over all that he has lost. 

Bonhoeffer grieves for the Jews but is unsure of how to handle his grief. 

Contentment

 

Characters are portrayed as idealistically calm because of Christian understanding.

 

Vladek has accepted the situation and always tries to make the most of it. 

Bonhoeffer wants to be content but struggles amid all the loss.

Desire for Repentance

 

Corrie and her family wish for a change of heart in the Germans.

   

Desire for Revenge

  

Death hates the Germans and implies a desire to make them pay. 

 

Bonhoeffer seems to speak of a need to destroy the destroyer.

As we look at Holocaust literature, it may be just as important to notice which books do not contain a particular emotion as it is to notice those that do. For example, The Plot to Kill Hitler is about German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who comes to the conclusion that he is morally obligated to try to assassinate Hitler to try to prevent deaths. That decision, however, does not seem motivated by hatred, nor is anger a common emotion for Bonhoeffer.

Moral/Ethical Questions

One of the most fascinating themes in Holocaust literature is how people settle moral questions. This includes the largest of questions (Bonhoeffer trying to decide if a Christian pastor can advocate and even act on a plot to murder someone) to the smallest (the morality of Liesel stealing a book that no one is using). While we teach students in Christian schools about responding to complicated moral questions from a biblical perspective all the time, one of the things that books can give us is deep context, not only of the moral question but also of the characters involved—their struggles and their life decisions overall.

 

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Hiding Place

The Book Thief

Maus I and Maus II

The Plot to Kill Hitler

Lying/Deceit

 

Characters lie about hiding Jews.

Characters lie about hiding Jews.

Past characters had lied about hiding Jews.

Character covers for a disobedient friend. 

Characters hide information and knowledge about the conspiracy.

Theft

Bruno steals food for Shmuel.

 

Liesel steals food and books. 

  

Loyalty

Bruno knows that Shmuel is hiding in his house and keeps it a secret.

  

Character covers for a disobedient friend.

Characters keep secrets for friends in other prison camps.

Authority

Characters obey Nazi orders to stay in the house.

Characters obey Nazi orders but see God as their ultimate authority. 

 

Some characters obey Nazi orders.

Bonhoeffer struggles to see his responsibility as being to God or to humans.

Bullying

The German sergeant in Bruno’s house treats the children poorly.

 

Rudy’s enemies bully him, but he is also a bully.

Nazi Germans bully the people in concentration camps.

 

Martyrdom

    

Some characters are willing to die for the sake of killing Hitler. 

When planning a Holocaust unit, it may be worthwhile to think about which questions you want to engage your students with. How will you support and challenge them as they work through these questions? During middle school and high school, students start to ask these types of questions and to come to an understanding of what they believe and why.

Other Themes

In addition to the above categories, many general themes appear in the books we read. One beauty of novels is that they usually contain a multitude of themes, so we should never consider any list of themes in a particular novel as exhaustive. In fact, after finishing a particular book with a particular class, it may be helpful to ask the students what themes they found within the book.

 

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Hiding Place

The Book Thief

Maus I and Maus II

The Plot to Kill Hitler

Gratitude

 

Corrie and her sister learn to be thankful in all situations. 

  

Bonhoeffer tries to see the good in anything and everything.

Storytelling

  

Hans reads to Liesel after she has nightmares.

Liesel’s community gets through air raids with Liesel reading from her stories.

Liesel reads to Max in the basement of her home.

Vladek tells his story to Art. 

 

Memory

  

Liesel’s memories haunt her.

Liesel and Max remember each other years later.

Vladek remembers so many details from the war, but sometimes his timeline gets mixed up. 

 

Survival

 

The characters survive the concentration camps. 

The characters survive the air raids.

Liesel and her parents get away with hiding Max in their basement. 

Vladek and his wife survive the concentration camps.

Bonhoeffer risks his life to plan the conspiracy, survives being caught, and lives a long time in prison before he is executed.

Death/Afterlife

Bruno’s father wonders about his son’s death. 

Corrie has faith in God and hopes for the place in heaven that He has for her. 

Death describes how he oversees the transition of the dead.

  

Relationships

Bruno and Shmuel are good friends.

Bruno and his sister have a strong relationship.

Corrie and Betsie have a strong sister relationship.

Corrie and her father are very close.

Liesel and Rudy are good friends. Liesel has differing relationships with Hans and Rosa.

Liesel and Max grow very close.

Liesel and Ilsa have an odd relationship.

Vladek and Art love each other.

Vladek and Anya had a good marriage.

Vladek and Mala have a bad marriage.

Bonhoeffer develops friendships with his seminary friends and co-conspirators. Bonhoeffer gets along with his parents and siblings in different ways.

Recommended Educational Use

Finally, it is important to remember that there are different ways for students to read. While some books are worthy of class study, other books might be more suitable as a class read aloud. This gives the teacher more direct control of how far to draw out students’ emotions. Another option is to work with several books in literature circles. This allows the teacher to differentiate, choosing books for different students based on the teacher’s perception of how much intensity each student can handle. There may be some books that, if you can’t incorporate them into your unit, might be made available to students through your classroom library (which allows you to make easy recommendations) or through your school’s library.

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Hiding Place

The Book Thief

Maus I and Maus II

The Plot to Kill Hitler

School Library

X

X

X

 

X

Classroom Library

X

X

X

X

X

Literature Circle

 

X

X

 

X

Class Read Aloud

X

X

X

 

X

Class Study

  

X

X

X

These novels give teachers an excellent opportunity to engage students, challenge them, and get them to consider important moral and ethical questions. In short, Holocaust literature defines much of what a Christian language arts class ought to be giving students the opportunity to do.

 

Works Reviewed

Boyne, John. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. David Fickling Books, 2006.

McCormick, Patricia. The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero. HarperCollins, 2016. 

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. 

———. Maus II. Pantheon, 1991.

ten Boom, Corrie. The Hiding Place. Bantam Books, 1974.

Zusak, Marcus. The Book Thief. Knopf, 2005.

Bill Boerman-Cornell is a professor of education at Trinity Christian College. His research focuses on young adult literature and how to use graphic novels in the classroom. He co-authored the book Graphic Novels in High School and Middle School Classrooms (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Dr. Boerman-Cornell’s next book, Using Graphic Novels in the English Language Arts Classroom, co-authored with Dr. Kim, will be published by Bloomsbury this September. He blogs about books at bookcommercials.wordpress.com.

Martha Mahtani is a senior English Education student at Trinity Christian College. She is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and she is currently finishing up her student teaching at Launceston Christian School in Tasmania, Australia with a hope to teach middle school English.

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