Introducing the Holocaust to Young Readers

July 14, 2015 | By | 2 Replies More

Hanna-smIn 2014, with the present rise of another wave of Anti-Semitism, I was commissioned by Scholastic Australia to write a novel set in the Holocaust. Given the vast number of novels, memoirs, biographies, essays, poetry and commentaries that have appeared in the last seventy years the task was daunting. Even though I thought I knew a lot, it still meant a great deal more reading and research. Almost every detail of those years has been carefully recorded, and I was wary of mistakes.

My commission was prescriptive. Aimed at children aged nine plus, or middle graders, the novel was to be set in the Warsaw Ghetto and record the experiences of one fictional child. After filtering through everything I could find about the Ghetto, I went on to explore how other children’s authors handled this sensitive topic.

Rereading ‘The Dairy of Anne Frank’ I found it still compelling. Researching other books aimed at young readers such as ‘Blanche-Rose’, and ‘Let the Celebrations Begin’, what struck me was that action is shown through language and illustration, yet the Holocaust is never directly named.

What has become popular in recent decades are fables: ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, and comic allegories such as ‘Maus: A Survivor’s Tale’.My problem has always been that I am never quite sure who the intended audience is. I remember the furore in 1991 when ‘Let the Celebrations Begin’ appeared. Many adults thought the topic unsuitable for anyone younger than a teenager.

Before 1939, a third of Warsaw’s population was Jewish. Jews could be found in every class of society and in every occupation. They were integral to the way the city functioned. When Hitler took over, his army herded those Jews into the poorest suburbs and a high concrete wall topped with broken glass was built around them. The Germans then waited for famine, disease, random shootings and concentration camps to do their work. Very few Jews survived, but the few that did began what came to be known as ‘The Warsaw Resistance’.

Uppermost in my mind was, how would I make such a dreadful topic appeal to young readers without scaring them? The task turned out to be as difficult as I had expected. I quickly realised for example, that a child would find the random shooting of a dog far more horrific than killing a person.

I also found that some of the bloodier events had to be curbed, almost glossed over. Where I wanted to make Hanna, my narrator rather petulant and spoilt and have her develop into a ‘nicer’ child as events around her became more horrific, my editor insisted that she must be likeable right from the start, or my readers would ditch her.

There were also personal reasons for my apprehension. Given my parents migrated to Australia in the early thirties, in 1945 as a very young child I was haunted by photos taken in the concentration camps. One small girl looked so much like me, she could have been my twin. I couldn’t understand why we had been spared this horror while none of our extended family survived.

What made things worse was that I was being educated in a convent and the Irish nuns kept assuring me that I would end up in a hell filled with brimstone and fire if I wasn’t baptized. Left with these unconscious anxieties even as an adult, all my historical fictions, five very different novels, their settings as varied as 1873, 1914, 1933, 1938 and 1954, I carefully avoided writing anything about 1939 -1945. I figured I had to be the only Aussie Jewish author who hadn’t written about the Holocaust.

Just like any other genre, there are guides to writing good historical fiction. The story has to be presented in an accessible and interesting format. Based on historical facts it must describe a society which starts with ‘what if you were there at the time’, so any detail that comes up in research should be well hidden. They are just there.

Like all fiction, the novel must have its own internal logic, but above all, it must contain convincing characters and a strong narrative drive. Youngsters refuse to be bored. If the story doesn’t carry them, they will drop the book in an instant. And contrary to popular belief, they are happy to tackle serious topics that don’t include farts and bums.

It was up to me to create a convincing character that children would relate to, but had some interesting ability. Thus I came up with: “Hanna Kaminsky loves gymnastics, her best friend Eva, Elza’s chicken soup with dumplings, and reading. But in September 1939 the happy life that Hanna has always known disappears. The Nazis have invaded Poland and herding all Jews into ghettos in the cities. Hanna’s family are forced into hiding in the countryside.

For a while it seems they are safe. But hiding from the Germans means trusting others. Rounded up by the SS, Hanna and her family are sent to the Warsaw Ghetto where they must use whatever skills they have to survive.”

Given history is the narrative of mankind, it provides answers as to how people lived in the past as well as giving root to present laws, customs, and political ideas. A true scholar realizes history can and does repeat itself. Most importantly, it can be used to issue warnings if some terrible event is likely to be repeated. For what promised to be quite a short novel, the experience of writing ‘My Holocaust Story: Hanna’ was exhausting. It forced me to revisit and confront those ghosts of the past, to re-confirm my small place in the vast spectrum of history and to remind me of what happily didn’t happen, rather than what might have.

Goldie Alexander writes award winning short stories, articles radio scripts and plays and books. Her novels are published both in Australia and overseas for readers of all ages. Her books for adults include: ‘The Grevillea Murder Mystery Trilogy’ ‘Lilbet’s Romance’, ‘Dessi’s Romance’,‘Penelope’s Ghost’ and ‘Mentoring Your Memoir’.

Her first YA historical fiction ‘Mavis Road Medley’ is listed as one of the best YA books in the Victorian State Library. Her best known book for children is: ‘My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove’. Her latest fiction for children includes: ‘Gallipoli Medals’, ‘The Youngest Cameleer’, ‘That Stranger Next Door’, My Holocaust Story: Hanna’ and the verse novel ‘In Hades’ short listed on the Aurealis Awards.

Her website is

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (2)

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  1. Thank you Robyn Hodges for your kind words, Writing historical fiction is surely a balancing act between those two elements

  2. Robbyn Hodgs says:

    Very interesting article!

    Most people don’t understand how deep the work goes to create a historical novel. It doesn’t stop at research. It’s about creating the perfect balance of believability and relation. Yes, it has to be factual, but it also must be gripping.

    Kudos to you!

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