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Canadian Children’s Literature as Stepping-Stones to Understanding the Holocaust

by Larry Swartz
holocaust jacket.jpg

Imagine a boy or girl reading the iconic title The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. How did the student come to read that book? What prior knowledge might that reader have about the Holocaust that will that prepare them for grasping the power of this Jewish girl and her family’s story about hiding in the Secret?  What questions about Nazi power will be aroused by reading about Anne Frank’s family? Where and how will the students find answers to those questions? 


Imagine a student reading historical fiction about a Jewish child who is struggling to survive under Nazi oppression and who desperately seeks a place of refuge. Perhaps the student is reading a title by a Canadian author:  Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, Good-bye Marianne by Irene Watts or The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser by Kathy Kacer. What if the reader of that book is Jewish? Catholic? Hindu? Muslim? What if the reader of that book is of German ancestry? How does the story of a Jewish quest for refuge connect to the student’s own religion and culture? What might that story teach them about humanity and resilience that they can apply to their own lives?


Imagine a student, Jewish or not, who is walking in his neighbourhood and sees graffiti of a swastika scrawled on a wall near his home.  Does that child understand why this is a hate crime?  Can the child begin to grasp where this hate came or have knowledge and understanding of the slaughter of six million Jews and other persecuted groups in what is known as the Holocaust? 


Building Awareness, Understanding and Compassion through Literature


Studying the Holocaust can help students to understand the roots of prejudice, racism and stereotyping. When students read or listen to stories about the Holocaust, they may begin to grasp the horrors of war, the dangers of dictatorship and the politics of religious intolerance. Children’s literature can take students to other times, other places and when the characters and settings are drawn from historical events, readers are mining narratives where facts and fiction merge. Reading picture books, fiction and nonfiction texts can be a stepping-stone into learning about the Holocaust, and this learning can open students minds and hearts to the harsh facts of genocide. Author, Kathy Kacer, has informed us that stories about the Holocaust can offer lessons, not only about hatred and power, but also lessons about compassion strength, and selflessness and these are lessons for the ages. 


Many students in today’s schools have limited knowledge or even awareness of the atrocities of Holocaust. If young people haven’t encountered media and texts about the killing of six million Jews, then schools are likely the forum for introducing this tough topic either through a community of readers who delve into a title, of through reading experiences where students can choose to read titles that they need or want to read.  What age is too young? What information can the students grasp at different developmental stages and grade levels? What information is enough? What information is too much? 

Teaching Holocaust history demands strong sensitivity and acute awareness of the complexity connected to the content.  As with other tough,  but vital, topics, a children’s literature title can open doors to learning and understanding about the topic. The fear of not having enough information may discourage some teachers from embarking on the topic. It need not. Teachers and parents are not obliged to have all the answers to young readers’ questions, but they should be prepared for questions to be revealed and subsequently investigated.  


Introducing the topic of the Holocaust connects students to the past and present, encouraging them to contemplate their own role in creating inclusion and harmony.  In this way, Holocaust education, can help students to develop their social awareness and understanding of social justice, diversity and equity. Exposing young people to this period in history should be a priority in order to make them aware of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry, which still exists in today’s world. The classroom can plant the seeds for possible change. International titles such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (fiction), Refugee by Alan Gratz (historical fiction), The Diary of Anne Frank (nonfiction), and White Bird  R.J. Palacio (graphic text), Erika’s Story by Ruth Vander Zee (picture book) have given students strong insights into the history of the Holocaust.  Along with popular titles from other countries, Canada can certainly celebrated by for the talent, wisdom and dedicated research of significant authors who have served literature that can proudly sit on shelves of titles about living through and beyond the Holocaust. Philosopher, George Santayana, has written “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When young people read and respond to books on the Holocaust, they can  grow in their understanding of the complexities of  history, its impact on the present and perhaps come to believe in the words written by Anne Frank:  “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”


Books Build Understanding


The following list highlights Canadian titles about the Holocaust that can be considered as essentials to help students gain an understanding not only of antisemitism but of resilience and hope. These five books of Holocaust remembrance were selected as representations of different genres suitable for different ages. Many of the novels and picture books suggested are drawn from true stories and the nonfiction titles provide testimonies of those who lived through, bore witness or were family members of holocaust survivors. See bibliography (page 00) for a more complete list of titles. 


THE PROMISE by Pnina Bat Zvi and Margie Wolfe, illustrated by Isabelle Cardinal (Picture Book) grades 3 +) 


This picture book tells the story based on true events, of two sisters, Rachel and Topgy who were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The narrative and powerful visual images depict danger the girls faced, especially, when forced to separate. Three gold coins and a promise they had given to their parents keep the two sisters hopeful in their striving to survive.


HANA’S SUITCASE: A true story  by Karen Levine (Biography) / grades 5-8


Hana was a Czech girl who died in the Holocaust. The book provides an account of how the curator of a Japanese Holocaust centre learned about Hana’s life after a suitcase that was sent to her. The story of Hana’s suitcase has helped children all over the world dig into pages that helps them to learn about the terrible history of what happened during World War IiI and invites them to heed the warnings of history. This title is one of Canada’s most awarded children’s books. 


DANIEL’S STORY by Carol Matas (Historical Fiction)  / grades 5-8


Daniel’s family is forced from their home in Frankfurt Germany and sent on a dangerous journey to a Nazi death camp. Daniel courageously struggles for survival and finds hope and life in the midst of despair. This book was written in 1993 to coincide with an exhibit at the United states Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Though fictional, Daniel provides readers with a young teenage character who inspires and helps to make sense and question the dreadful realities of the Holocaust.  


GOOD-BYE MARIANNE: A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany by Irene N. Watts, illustrated by Kathryn E. Shoemaker (Graphic text) / grades 5-8


Marianne Kohn’s world collapses when as a Jewish student she was expelled a German State school. The Gestapo forced their way into Marianne’s family home, destroying all their property. The story begins on November 15, 1938 (one week after the Night of the Broken Glass / Kristallnacht) when synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed by order of the Nazi government. The possibility of Marianne escaping Berlin is provided by Kindertransport, the rescue trains bound for England for unaccompanied children under sixteen. This book was first published as a novel in 1998 but was released in graphic format in 2008.


BRANDED BY THE PINK TRIANGLE by Ken Setterington (Nonfiction/YA)


Setterington has done extensive research into the plight of homosexuals under the rise of the Nazi Party. Homosexuals, along with Jews and other groups were imprisoned in concentration camps. The author presents a timeline of events of those who were persecuted and those who campaigned for human rights. He writes about the fears of raids, the ugliness of prison sentences that became a reality for homosexuals who were branded by the pink triangle sewn unto prison uniforms. 





SPOTLIGHT ON KATHY KACER: Canadian Children’s Literature Hero


Kathy Kacer is to be commended for writing books in different genres including historical fiction, nonfiction, and picture books and for different audiences including upper elementary, middle-years and young adult readers. The real-life experiences of her mother prompted Kacer to publish her first historical fiction title The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser. Gabi recounts her experiences as a young Jewish girl who lived on a family farm in Easter Europe during the Second World War. When the Nazi’s conducted house searches for Jewish children Gabi successful hid in the dining-room dresser (which is now in the author’s home). Since the publication of that book in 1999, Kacer has written additional historical fiction books for middle-years readers. A sequel to The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser entitled The Night Spies recounts the experiences of Gabi and her young cousin Max who hid in a cramped hayloft owned by a kind Catholic farmer. Clara’s War tells of the experience of a family sent to Terizin in walled town in Czechoslovakia. Young Clara is eager to be part of a children’s opera ‘Brundibar’ but is conflicted when she learns about her friend’s dangerous escape plan. In The Diary of Laura’s Twin, a Jewish girl named Laura Wyman about to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah receives the diary of a 12-year-old Sarah Gittler who was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. For her Bat Mitzvah celebration, Laura is called upon to celebrate Sara’s life, helping her to better understand the choices in life we are confronted with. 


Kacer’s extensive research skills are evident in historical nonfiction titles for young readers: Hiding Edith presents the true story of an entire village that heroically conspired to conceal the presence of hundreds of Jewish Children; The Underground Reporter is  the story of Jewish children who created a newspaper during World War II; To Hope and Back: the Journey of the St. Louis, the story of the luxury ocean liner that took almost one thousand passengers to a safe haven across the ocean, only to have fate interrupted when they were not allowed to dock in Cuba;  Shanghai Escape, the true story of Lily Toufar and her Austrian family who have escaped Europe to hopefully find a safe refuge in Shanghai, China. The book, We are Their Voice: Young People Respond to the Holocaust, is a documentation of a writing project that brought responses from students from across America that documents what meaning they find in the Holocaust. 


More recently, three titles serve as examples of Kathy Kacer’s vital works digging into Holocaust history in different genres. A picture book, The Brave Princess and Me, (2019) tells the story of a princess who hides a young Jewish girl and her mother from the Nazis. The story is inspired by the real-life courage of UK’S Prince Alice who is the mother of Prince Philip and great-grandmother of Princes William and Harry. To Look a Nazi in the Eye (2018) is a nonfiction title for Young Adults that conveys the experiences of nineteen-year-old Jordana Lebowitz when she attends the war criminal trial of Oskar Groening – the bookkeeper of Auschwitz in 2015. To help readers ages 10-14 gain knowledge and insights and empathy into those who survived the Holocaust, Broken Strings (2019) is a must-read title. When a young Jewish girl named Shirli gets the part in the musical Fiddler on the Roof she comes to discover a violin hidden in her grandfather’s attic. She reaches out to her Zayde (grandfather), a widower, who seems angry, pained and reluctant to talk about his past. This is a well-paced heartfelt story where students can learn about the inhumanity of Nazism and the scars it left on its victims. Broken Strings was co-written with Canadian author Eric Walters


Award-winning author, Kathy Kacer, has written more than 20 books that focus on stories of the Holocaust.  As a child of Holocaust survivors, Kacer feels a personal responsibility to collect these stories and pass them on to the next generation. The author believes that we all share a collective responsibility to ensure that this history is not lost, whether readers have a personal connection to this history or not. Kathy Kacer does the world of Canadian literature and Holocaust education proud in her passionate advocacy for stories about the Holocaust both in print and through speaking engagements. In the book, Teaching Tough Topics, the author writes: “Remember this: Every time you remember this history, and every time you talk about it, you are honouring someone who lived and possibly perished during that time. You are giving meaning to their lives. And that is a remarkable thing.” (2020, p. 69)

Bibliography of Canadian Literature about the Holocaust


Picture Books


Bat Zvi, Pnina, and Margie Wolf (illus. Isabelle Cardinal). The Promise

Kacer, Kathy (illus. Juliana Koleslova) The Brave Princess and Me 

Kacer, Kathy (illus. Gillian Newland) The Magician of Auschwitz

Renaud, Anne (illus. Richard Rudnicki) Fania’s Heart

Upjohn, Rebecca (illus. Renne Benoit) The Secret of the Village Fool


Historical Fiction


Arato, Rona The Ship to Nowhere: On Board the Exodus (Also: The Last Train: A Holocaust Story)

Clark, Kathy The Choice (Also: Guardian Angel House)

Levine, Karen Hana’s Suitcase (biography)

Matas, Carol Daniel’s Story (Also: Lisa’s War, After the War, Greater than Angels)

Ravel, Edeet A Boy is Not a Bird

Spring, Debbie The Righteous Smuggler 

Watts, Irene N. (illus. Kathryn E. Shoemaker). Good-bye Marianne: A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany (graphic text)


Young Adult Nonfiction


Burakowski, Ella Hidden Gold: A True Story of the Holocaust

Eisen, Max By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz 

Kacer, Kathy, with Jordana Lebowitz. To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A Teen’s Account of a War Criminal Trial

Rubenstein, Eli, with March of the Living Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations

Setterington, Ken Branded by the Pink Triangle


Ten Books by Kathy Kacer 


Broken Strings (with Eric Walters)

Clara’s War

The Diary of Laura’s Twin

Masters of Silence

The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser (Sequel: The Night Spies)

Shanghai Escape (nonfiction)

To Hope and Back: The Journey of the St. Louis (nonfiction)

The Underground Reporters (nonfiction)

We Are Their Voice: Young People Respond to the Holocaust (nonfiction)

Whispers from the Ghettos trilogy (historical nonfiction short stories)


Additional Resources


The FAST Organization (Fighting Antisemitism Together) has produced an free online program

Choose Your Voice designed for grades 6, 7 and 8 and Voices into Action (grades 9-12) to help students speak out against racism, antisemitism and intolerance. The four units are designed to burst the voices of stereotypes, learn from the voices of the past, and present and ultimately to have students ‘choose their own voices’ that tackle the issue of exclusion. 


Second Story Press believes in the principal that it is possible to talk to children about serious issues, provided the context is appropriate. The Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers includes picture books, fiction and nonfiction titles. A digital Teacher Resource Guide with lessons, worksheets, maps, photographs and evaluation materials is available through the publisher. 



Larry Swartz is a Literacy and Children’s Literature instructor at the Ontario Institute for Education (OISE). He is the author of the book, Teaching Tough Topics: How do I use children’s literature to build a deeper understanding of social justice, equity and diversity (Pembroke Publishers, 2020). Ideas for this article have been adapted from material that appears in Chapter 4, entitled ‘The Holocaust’ of Teaching Tough Topics. 

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