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 preferences—or 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 example—they 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. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

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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