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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Holocaust Picture Books: An Annotated List

After many requests, I've finished compiling an annotated list of Holocaust books. I resisted the urge to categorize them by grade level, as I feel they can be used effectively in both upper elementary and middle grades.

First, however, I wanted to make special mention of one of the newer Holocaust picture books available. Irena's Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ron Mazellan, is a wonderful and important addition to the canon of children's literature on the Holocaust (see the full list below), and certainly one worth adding to your own library.

In Irena's Jars of Secrets, Irena Sendler learns compassion at an early age from her father, a Catholic physician who treated Jewish patients at a time when most Christian doctors would not.When her father contracts typhus treating these same patients, he tells Irena on his death bed to "help someone who is drowning, even if you cannot swim."

Irena takes this advice to heart, and begins administering to the Jews imprisoned within the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto by occupying Nazi forces. Beginning in 1940 and continuing for the next two years, Irena smuggles in food, clothing, and medicine. She realizes, however, that this isn't enough. As the Nazis begin transporting the Ghetto inhabitants to concentration camps, Irena joins a secret organization called Zegota, and makes plans to smuggle Jewish children to safety.

But what parent will give up their child? Only after Irena swears to provide new identities and preserve the real names of their children do the Jewish parents reluctantly release them to her. The book chronicles the close calls of the smuggling operation, as well as the capture and near execution of Irena.

After the war's end, Irena unearths her buried jars which contain the real identities of the children that were saved. Most of the children's parents have been killed in the camps, but the lists allow the Jewish National Committee to locate living relatives for many of the children. An afterword provides additional information about Irena Sendler, who never considered herself a hero. Instead, she said this in a letter to the Polish Senate in 2007:

Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this earth, and not a title to glory.

Rich, wonderful paintings by Ron Mazellan (who also illustrated the Holocaust title The Harmonica) help to capture both the tragic and triumphant moments of this book. His subjects and scenes are dramatically lit, and in his own words "moody and mysterious," putting the absolute perfect finishing touches on this title.

  • Why are names so important? Ask students to interview their parents and find out how their names came to be. 
  • Pair Irena's Jars of Secrets with Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto. What information do both books share? What information is provided by one book but not the other? Why might we want to consult multiple sources when conducting research?
  • Check out Discussing Historical Fiction and the Definition of Courage with Marcia Vaughan and Ron Mazellan at Lee and Low's website. Both creators discuss how this topic relates to their own experiences, and the processes they underwent to bring this story to life.
  • At this same site you'll also find some wonderful discussion questions in Lee and Low's collection of Teacher's Guides
  • For this particular picture book, as well as any that mentions the Warsaw Ghetto, I'd recommend Children in the Ghetto, an interactive site which describes itself as
    "...A website about children, written for children. It portrays life during the Holocaust from the viewpoint of children who lived in the ghetto, while attempting to make the complex experience of life in the ghetto as accessible as possible to today’s children.

    Along with the description of the hardships of ghetto life, it also presents the courage, steadfastness and creativity involved in the children’s lives. One of the most important messages to be learned is that despite the hardships, there were those who struggled to maintain humanitarian and philanthropic values, care for one another, and continue a cultural and spiritual life."
    By examining artifacts, writings, and first hand interviews, students gain an understanding of the "anything-to-survive" mentality which the ghetto created and demanded of its inhabitants. Students can either explore freely, taking advantage of the interactive elements, or additionally respond in writing using the printable handouts. I chose to download the handouts, available in Word format, and tweaked them according to my students' strengths and needs..

    Once they've completed this exercise, students will have a mental bank of sites, sounds, stories, and symbols from which to draw upon, greatly increasing their understanding of this period in history.
Annotated List of Holocaust Picture Books

Embedded below you'll find an annotated list of Holocaust Picture Books.Using the provided controls, you can share, download, print, or enlarge this pdf. I hope you'll find this useful when searching out the best books for your own studies. Feel free to leave a comment to let me know which books I missed!



Carol Simon Levin said...

Keith, this is absolutely wonderful!! So glad you are blogging "Teach with Picture Books" regularly again.

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks, Carol! I knew I needed a break, but I'm glad to be back at it again! So many wonderful books to share, and so great to hear from readers and fellow educators.

Mommy Evolution said...

Visiting from KidLit. Thanks for this needed round up.

Anonymous said...

Another amazing list!
Thanks for sharing this with the Kid Lit Blog Hop!

Renee C. said...

What a moving story told in Irena's Jars of Secrets ~ I would love to read that book with my children. And thank you so much for putting together such a great list of books about the Holocaust. I've pinned the list for future reference. Glad to see you again at the Kid Lit Blog Hop! :D

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks, Katie and Jennifer, for your kind words about the list.

Keith Schoch said...

Renee: The most moving thing about that story is that it actually happened! Hard to always remember that, but it makes these books so much more important.

alena said...

wow so hard to find holocaust themed book thanks,would love to read them