The Holocaust in Literature: Fiction and Non-Fiction
Using literature is an effective way to address the Holocaust with your students.
By Daniella Garran
Teaching about the Holocaust is a daunting task for even the most seasoned educator. It is difficult to predict the responses of students, to find answers to seemingly rhetorical questions, and to help students grasp the enormity and inhumanity of the event. Literature is an especially effective way to address this topic. Non-fictional accounts, such as Elie Wiesel’s "Night," Livia Bitton-Jackson’s "I Have Lived a Thousand Years" and the work of Primo Levi are shocking to many students who have trouble grasping the truth about the Holocaust. In recent years, many fictional novels for young adults have been published which offer just as many opportunities to learn and discuss the events of the Holocaust. Jerry Spinelli’s novel "Milkweed" is the tale of a young gypsy boy who seeks an identity when that was exactly what could get him into trouble. "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak is a fascinating look at the way the Holocaust touched the lives of one family, and, in particular, a young girl. There is no shortage of historical fiction and non-fictional accounts of the Holocaust. It is a topic of perennial fascination for students of all ages.
Writing blended poetry is a wonderful way to help students explore their feelings about the Holocaust. Have students select at least five phrases from whatever Holocaust novel they are reading. They should then create an equal number of their own, original phrases which express their thoughts about the Holocaust. Students should rearrange the original and copied lines or phrases until they are happy with their blended poem.
Another cathartic exercise for students is to have them create art. Making collages, redesigning book covers or painting provides an important outlet for students who struggle to wrap their heads around the brutality and inhumanity of the Holocaust.
Many students struggle with how to conceptualize the idea of six million Jews perishing at the hands of the Nazis. One way to help students overcome this is to have them create “Six of Six Million” displays. Students can bring in six of anything they feel could represent the six million Jews and then display it in the classroom. For example, six shoes, six family photos, six toothbrushes or six of any personal object will do. This exercise will help students think of the victims as individuals rather than as part of a huge number of victims. Here are some excellent lesson plans which utilize literature about the Holocaust.
The Holocaust in Literature Lesson Plans:
This lesson draws on several texts including "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust" by Yaffa Eliach and Susan D. Bachrach’s "Tell Them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust" before dispatching students to read a Holocaust-related novel of their choice, be it fiction or non-fiction. What makes this lesson interesting is that students are required to chart the characters’ lives along side historical events mentioned in the novels. Students gain a valuable perspective by analyzing the impact of world events on the life of an individual.
This exceptional lesson allows students to study the life and times of Ida Fink in depth. A native of Poland, Fink was persecuted by the Nazis and forced to live in a ghetto. She escaped and lived in plain sight of the Nazis with the help of falsified papers. The lesson explores both her autobiography and a short story she wrote. Fink’s writing addresses the roles of victims and bystanders during the Holocaust, as well as the role of the community and the passage of time. After this lesson, students apply the themes to other Holocaust literature as well.
A staple of Holocaust studies, Nobel Peace Prize winning author Elie Wiesel’s novel "Night" chronicles the horrors of the Holocaust from the perspective of a twelve-year old boy. The novel, generally taught at the high school level, can be read by middle school students with the appropriate guidance and a great deal of discussion. This lesson focuses on the chronology of the Holocaust, as well as related issues such as dehumanization, the individual’s relationship with God, and the nature of Wiesel’s experience.
Perhaps the best known work of Holocaust literature "The Diary of Anne Frank" is accessible to middle school students who are, perhaps, not quite ready for the horrors of the Holocaust presented in Elie Wiesel’s "Night" and other novels. This lesson helps students relate the events of the Holocaust and Anne Frank’s experiences to current events and modern history.