Yet, by focusing so relentlessly on the Holocaust, we are telling children, Jewish or not, that the worst thing that has ever happened to us is the cornerstone of our collective identity. Are we trying to scare Jewish children into loving their Jewishness? Trying to make non-Jews feel guilty so that they refrain from insults and attacks? How does it work for us? And how exactly do we do Judaism attractive to Jewish children when the main story we share about who we are is that we were the victims of mass murder?
Although the books on the Holocaust that won the Sydney Taylor Prizes are for the most part excellent, the truth is that excellence in books on the Holocaust is rare. Most Holocaust kidlit is, in fact, gruesome: age-inappropriate (why do we need a picture book about a Crystal Night witness cat?), Deceptive (the vast majority of Jewish families were do not, in fact, reunited after the war, yet children’s books need happy endings, so …) and based on elisions of fiction and fact (the King of Denmark made do not wear a yellow star as a sign of sympathy with the Jewish community; a famous Italian cyclist probably did do not save 800 Jews).
And too many people focus on noble Christians saving passive and helpless Jews. We don’t need more righteous and kind books; none will improve Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” flawlessly anyway. They are the equivalent of the stories of white saviors in black literature. Show us Jewish resistance fighters, ghetto fighters, smugglers and spies! And genug with well-meaning but lazy young adult novels that use the Holocaust as an atmospheric and dramatic backdrop for a love story, delivering emotional intensity without real gravity. Let’s not even talk about the popular young adult novel about a teenage death camp survivor in a dystopian alternate timeline who develops shape-shifting powers from Mengele-like experiences, falls in love with a sexy boy of the Axis and enters a transcontinental motorcycle race so that she can kill Hitler at the victory ball.
And, oh, “The boy in the striped pajamas.” Nine-year-old Bruno is the son of a Nazi commander, but he has no idea what his father does or even what a Jew is. He befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, who somehow manages to escape his daily activities in Auschwitz to spend time with Bruno at an unelectrified and unguarded fence. This tale is not heartwarming; this is a lie. The Jews who managed to reach these fences (actually electrified) rushed at them to kill themselves. Bruno would have known what the Jews were; in 1935, 60% of German boys were members of the Hitler Youth. Bruno wouldn’t have thought that people in “striped pajamas” were on vacation; the real inmates looked like walking skeletons. And the majority of the 9-year-old boys were gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz, so Shmuel probably wouldn’t have been there at all.
Even books on the Holocaust that are not trivial and based on facts are problematic because there are so many a lot. The Sydney Taylor Book Award committee read 146 books this year; 32 concerned the Holocaust. Of those from the Big Five and Scholastic, however – that is, the books with the most prestige and the highest production values - 11 out of 44 (25%) were related to the Holocaust.