Yet by focusing so relentlessly on the Holocaust, we’re telling kids, Jewish and not, that the worst thing that ever happened to us is the cornerstone of our collective identity. Are we trying to scare Jewish kids into loving their Jewishness? Trying to guilt non-Jews into refraining from slurs and attacks? How’s that working out for us? And how, precisely, are we making Judaism appealing to Jewish children when the primary story we share about our selfhood is that we were victims of mass murder?
Though the Holocaust books that have won Sydney Taylor awards are mostly excellent, the truth is that excellence in Holocaust books is rare. Most Holocaust kidlit is, in fact, godawful: age-inappropriate (why do we need a picture book about a cat witnessing Kristallnacht?), misleading (the vast majority of Jewish families were 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 did not wear a yellow star in sympathy with the Jewish community; a famous Italian bicyclist probably did not save 800 Jews).
And too many focus on noble Christians rescuing passive, helpless Jews. We don’t need more righteous-gentile books; none will improve on Lois Lowry’s flawless “Number the Stars,” anyway. They’re the equivalent of white-savior narratives in Black literature. Show us Jewish resistance fighters, ghetto combatants, smugglers and spies! And genug with the well-meaning but lazy young adult novels that use the Holocaust as an atmospheric, high-drama backdrop for a love story, providing emotional intensity without true gravitas. Let’s not even discuss the popular young adult novel about a teenage girl death-camp survivor in a dystopian alternate timeline who develops shape-shifting powers from Mengele-like experiments, falls in love with a hot Axis boy and enters a transcontinental motorcycle race so she can kill Hitler at the victory ball.
And, oy, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Nine-year-old Bruno is the son of a Nazi commandant, yet he has no idea what his dad does or even what a Jew is. He befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, who somehow manages to slip away from his daily activities in Auschwitz to hang out with Bruno at an unelectrified, unguarded fence. This tale isn’t heartwarming; it’s a lie. Jews who managed to reach those (in fact, electrified) fences hurled themselves against them to commit suicide. Bruno would have known what Jews were; by 1935, 60 percent of German boys were members of the Hitler Youth. Bruno would not have thought the people in “striped pajamas” were on vacation; real inmates looked like walking skeletons. And the majority of 9-year-old boys were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz, so Shmuel probably wouldn’t have been there at all.
Even nontrivializing, fact-based Holocaust books are problematic because there are so many. The Sydney Taylor Book Award committee read 146 books this year; 32 were about the Holocaust. Among those from the big five publishers and Scholastic, though — meaning books with the most prestige and highest production values — 11 of 44 (25 percent) were Holocaust-related.