Sunday 27 January 2013 marks Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. It is a date now part of many schools’ calendars with commemorative assemblies, projects, visits and presentations taking place. I’ve actively supported HMD since it began in 2001 and this year, my S1 book club will commemorate the date by meeting to discuss our feelings and reactions to a book we have been reading for the last four weeks. It’s ‘Once’ by Morris Gleitzman, the first in a quartet about Felix, a Jewish boy who we first meet in Poland in 1942. When copies of ‘Once’ were handed out to the group, we spent our meeting listening to one of the school’s Religious Studies teachers telling us a bit about the background to the Holocaust. Giving the pupils some background was important, and at meetings since, pupils (and staff) have been discussing little snippets, not about plot or character, but about how they are feeling when reading it.
We will meet up this week to have our discussion, to talk about the book, its wider context and the continued relevance of the subject matter. I’ve done this a number of times since 2001 and have continually been amazed at the reaction of pupils and how insightful their discussion has been.
Stepping back into the classroom for a moment, this got me thinking about how English teachers teach the Holocaust through literature. The favourites in my experience, particularly in the lower school, are ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, Ian Serailler’s ‘The Silver Sword’ and John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ which is also taught separately as a film text using the 2008 film directed by Mark Herman. Another novel (I would argue for a slightly older age group) is Marcus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’. It has been a privilege to work with pupils on many of these texts, to support and encourage discussion and try to come to a shared understanding that the horrors unfolding on the page or on the screen are not confined to the past. Interestingly, all these texts give voice to young people and that resonates strongly with pupils. Another such novel for this age group is ‘Emil and Karl’ by Yankev Glatshteyn, originally published in Yiddish in 1938. Another children’s novel I admire, it is currently out of print, although you can buy a second-hand copy very cheaply.
I haven’t been in the position myself, but have colleagues who have either decided not to teach ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ (film or novel) or have been forced to give a single pupil separate work to do when they are teaching it. This is because of parental complaints made by people feeling strongly that their son/daughter is too young to be taught about the Holocaust.
It got me thinking about what the ‘right’ age is for a subject of this nature and why protecting or shielding young people is the ‘right’ thing to do because as a parent we feel they aren’t emotionally ‘ready’. We spent a long weekend in Amsterdam last year with our seven-year-old daughter and planned not to go to visit Anne Frank’s house on the basis that at seven, she was ‘too young’. It ended up that we did visit it – but we did our homework first, using the museum’s website to guide us about age appropriateness and we had many, many discussions, both before and after visiting. I don’t regret it at all, but can understand it depends on the child not his/her age and how the subject is handled. I do feel she’s too young for the aforementioned books but I will suggest in time that she reads them. These stories are too important and they tell themselves and what happened in a way I cannot.
So back to ‘Once’. I will read it this week for the 12th time and even as an adult, it will still have an impact on me. I look forward to discussing my reading of it with pupils and other staff, all of whom are coming to it for the first time, and seeing it afresh through their eyes.
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