“Those who cannot remember the past,” the philosopher George Santayana warned us, “are condemned to repeat it.” His words echoed in my ear as I tried to explain to my husband why the 2016 election frightened me so much and why the travel bans and policies that followed it inspired me to take to the streets.
With Holocaust deniers abounding and creeping fascism expanding, I've noticed a pattern among who I run into at protests. Elementary school soccer teammates, old co-workers, even random strangers I meet: they're all Jewish. The other day outside the ICE building, my baby, Tove, met a Noa and a Miriam, and Noa's mom laughed nervously, "Lots of Old Testament names here."
But the Old Testament isn't the book that drives today's young Jewish parents to stand up for the separated children and banned travelers.
While my childhood had been filled with the words of religious school classmates’ grandparents telling their stories from Auschwitz and books like "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank and "Number the Stars," my husband’s was not. He had not read "The Book Thief." He couldn’t see the reflection of our country in the stories burnt into my memory from a young age.
By introducing the constructs and consequences of fascism to children at a young age, in an age-appropriate way, we educate and inoculate against future horrors.
As parents, it’s our job to protect our children, but like the sting of a shot and a slight fever after a vaccine, sometimes protection comes in a form that hurts for a minute before the protection arrives.
Giving young children books about the Holocaust may expose them to the scary kinds of evil they didn’t realize existed, but in the long run, it helps them to spot and fight against that kind of terror when it arises again. By introducing the constructs and consequences of fascism to children at a young age, in an age-appropriate way, we educate and inoculate against future horrors.
“Obviously, it depends on the kid,” says Seattle Public Library children’s librarian Alicia Luoma, on when kids might be ready to read about the Holocaust. After consulting sources like I Love Libraries and the local Holocaust Center for Humanity, she explains that it’s best to begin with an individual story.
By giving the child the story of one person, one small detail, they can start to learn individual empathy before they move on to the general idea of discrimination. Luoma and her fellow librarians, Lauren Mayer and Shelley Mastalerz, offer the following recommendations for books to get young people started.
- "Erika’s Story": Luoma likes the in-depth art in this story about a baby whose parents threw her from a train to save her.
- "The Secret of the Village Fool": The true story of a man mocked for his beliefs (including vegetarianism) who hides families in his home.
- "Jars of Hope" and "Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto": Two different picture book treatments of the story of a Polish social worker who smuggled hundreds of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto and into hiding.
- "The Whispering Town": A town whispers directions to the port to Jewish families trying to escape from Denmark.
- "Hana’s Suitcase": The story of a curator of a Holocaust education center looking for the story behind an empty suitcase she received which once belonged to a young Czech girl.
- "Luba, The Angel of Bergen-Belsen": A woman finds and cares for 54 children found abandoned behind the concentration camp, saving their lives.
- "Annexed": While Anne Frank’s diary has been read by children for years, this story is told from the point of view of Peter, who is the boy that hid in the same space.
- "Prisoner B-3087": The story of a boy’s survival through concentration camps.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in August 2018, and updated in January 2020.