Listen to the Voices of the Holocaust

Connect fiction and nonfiction narratives about the Holocaust to show universal themes of human strength and endurance.

By Elijah Ammen

Barbed wire

June 12th marks the birthday of Anne Frank and the day that she was given a present that would shape generations of readers — a blank journal. Since its first edition in 1947, The Diary of Anne Frank has provided a personal insight into the true struggle of a young girl whose sweet and genuine nature is stamped on every page in her honest and raw expression. 

There are an inexhaustible number of historical resources on the Holocaust, from the Holocaust Memorial Museum to smaller projects like Holocaust Survivors. But for all the facts, figures, and photographs of the horrifying events of the Holocaust, the emotional core of the tragedy is in the individual stories of ordinary people who not only survived, but showed extreme bravery when confronted with a brutal system of hate and oppression.

While there are several excellent nonfiction accounts in addition to The Diary of Anne Frank, there are also other stories that are rooted in historical accuracy, but take narrative liberties in order to express the same feelings to a generation that has grown up without a direct connection to WWII. The variety of styles and genres allow for units that are historically relevant and academically rigorous. Readers can analyze similar themes of strength and endurance in vastly different styles of writing. Using these varying texts creates a rigorously analytical environment that corresponds to the goals of Common Core standards.

Interpreting Styles

While most literature set during the Holocaust has similar themes, the writing styles are different depending on the author, their personal connection to the event, and their point in writing. For instance, The Diary of Anne Frank is composed of the thoughts of a young girl whose cramped living quarters and fear of exposure is in contrast to her thoughts that she wrote — the only place she could escape. 

On the other hand, Night is Elie Wiesel's autobiographical account of his time in a concentration camp, and the horrors that caused him to lose his faith. The fragmented prose echoes his shattered innocence — an innocence that Anne Frank's diary, for the most part, retained. Wiesel's multiple and conflicting motivations and clear character arc make this an excellent text for Common Core Standard: RI.9-10.3 on how complex characters advance plot and develop themes.

The fictional narratives take more stylistic liberties. For instance, The Book Thief is narrated by the omniscient perspective of Death whose story moves back and forth through time, and displaying horrific events through the seemingly neutral perspective of personified Death. The choice of a narrator who is divorced from taking one side or the other means that the descriptive language is unlike any other Holocaust story. Readers can practice Common Core Standard: RL.9-10.4, where they analyze the power of specific words and how they alter mood and tone with their different levels of meaning.

Maus, perhaps, takes the most liberties with the storytelling framework. This graphic novel uses anthropomorphic characters (e.g. Jews as mice, Nazis as cats) in order to add an extra level of symbolism to the story. While this stylistic choice seems almost juvenile, the result is a level of visual symbolism that reinforces themes in the text. The use of a visual medium is a useful way to teach Common Core Standard: SL.9-10.2 where speakers and listeners incorporate a diverse group of mediums or formats. And while The Book Thief and Maus were originally written in English, texts like Night and The Diary of Anne Frank are from a different cultural perspective and have been translated into many languages, therefore supporting Common Core Standard: RL.9-10.6 with the use of varied world literature.

Comparing and Contrasting Texts

There are a plethora of combinations for comparing and contrasting Holocaust narratives, but here are a few ideas for starters:

  • How do first-person accounts of the Holocaust differ from third-person? 
  • What are the similarities of Holocaust survivors?
  • What differences are there between people who lived through the Holocaust, and those who endured a concentration camp?
  • What similarities and differences are evident between male and female narrators?
  • Why do many Holocaust texts use a motif of retelling a story to preserve history for the next generation?
  • What are similarities and differences in the authors' characterizations of Nazis and Nazi supporters? 
  • How do each of the texts characterize non-Jews who help Jews during this time? (If students have read Number the Stars in middle school, this would be another great text, or Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place)
  • How does the Holocaust change the protagonist?

Understanding Relationships

The nature of tragedy is that it highlights strong relationships and exposes weak or corrupt relationships. Each of these Holocaust texts includes relationships as a vital part of the story. For some, the relationships are part of the narrative. Maus takes place after WWII with a son interviewing his father who lived through the Holocaust. The Book Thief explores how friendship makes the most impossible struggles bearable, and how communities come together as families to survive. Night follows the slow reversal and collapse of the father/son relationship as Wiesel and his father struggle to survive in a concentration camp. And finally, Anne Frank's relationships with her mother and father, the tense relationships with the other families crammed into hiding, and her first romance give us an empathy for a character who faced similar adolescent pains, even in the middle of one of the world's greatest tragedies.