Representation of the Holocaust in Contemporary Children's and Youth Literature

Dr. Katrien Vloeberghs

Promotor: Prof. Dr. Vivian Liska
This post-doctoral research project investigated the representation of the Holocaust in contemporary European, Israeli and American children's literature (1980 to the present). The recent proliferation of children's books dealing with this topic is particularly remarkable in the face of the inherent incompatibility between the traditional premises of children's literature on the one hand and the problematic of Holocaust representations, considering the magnitude of its horror and the bleakness of its implications, on the other. The study explored how Holocaust children's literature meets the challenge of this incompatibility. It paid special attention to the specific limitations and pitfalls of this literature and to the creative strategies with which these obstacles have been met by individual authors and their works. The study emphasizes those features of Holocaust children's literature (plots, figures, styles, scenes and passages) that point to innovative ways of transmitting factual information, of evoking indescribable horror and, more generally, of doing justice to the difficulties of representing the Holocaust within the confines and possibilities of this medium. 

Since the Enlightenment, Western children's literature has been characterized by a strong commitment to the transmission of knowledge and experience from one generation to the next. This task becomes particularly urgent, but also very complex, in the context of Holocaust children's literature. Since the young reader cannot be assumed to have acquired basic knowledge about the events, a primary motivation to write Holocaust children's literature lies in transmitting factual information - names, dates, maps and numbers. However, in order to awaken the interest of the young reader to historical events, children's literature generally aggrandizes the entertaining and spectacular dimension of the stories it relates and blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. This blurring of boundaries has been problematized in the discourse about the 'limits of representation' in adult literature about the Holocaust, but has so far not been reflected in relation to children's literature which is often the first and therefore crucial source of knowledge of the actual events. A specific challenge to Holocaust children's literature resides therefore in the attempt to convey the basic historical information in captivating ways without dissolving it in a sensationalist fictionalization of the events. This project looks into this literature's inventiveness to both present information as factual knowledge and stimulate the imaginative potential of the youngster faced with this most dreadful event in modern European history.
A second incompatibility between children's literature and the representation of the Holocaust lies in the need to narrate the innumerable scenes of real historical horror on the one hand and the consideration for the limits of children's and youngsters' emotional fragility on the other. In order to overcome this problem, contemporary children's literature usually reverts to strategies that can soothe the horror. As a result, children's literature has produced its own reservoir of Holocaust representations, its own repeatedly described settings and scenes, emplotments and endings usually involving a young protagonist or a child's perspective on the events. While some of the recurring scenarios such as the description of the gradual impact of the Nürnberg Laws on the Jewish protagonists' daily lives, the anxious adventures of hidden children, the compulsory transportation of youngsters to the ghettos, and - often between the lines and in the margins of the novel - the silhouettes of death trains or the shadows of barbed wire fences, are also present in adult Holocaust literature, they are often simplified, rendered more harmless and reduced to clichés in the corresponding books for children. Frequently, the protagonist's fear is counteracted with an implicit reassurance of the protagonist's survival through a happy ending or the choice of a retrospective narration in the first person. The remarkable absence of representations and reflections of the industrialized character of the massacre equally contributes to diminishing the extent of the actual horrors. This study aims at going beyond merely criticizing these stereotypes and conventions which risk embellishing and distorting or even concealing and repressing the dimensions of the historical events. Its goal lies in exploring instances of successful literary evocation of endless suffering without shocking or traumatizing and without transgressing the borders of what can be entrusted to a both vulnerable and resilient reading audience of children and youngsters.
A third factor involved in the incompatibility between Holocaust representation and children's literature derives from the latter's traditional optimism and trust that the humanist values, which accompany children's literature since its beginnings in the Enlightenment, will prevail. In the aftermath of Auschwitz, a possibly irreparable scepticism about the moral progress of civilization and the gradual triumph of humanism has become a constant factor in post-war society, theory and literature. Most often, this scepticism is silenced in children's literature on the Holocaust in order to avoid discouragement, resignation and nihilism. This phenomenon raises fundamental questions: does this literature's emphasis on ensuring continuity and hope 'despite everything' inevitably end up in the neutralization of the radical disruption caused by the Holocaust? Does the message of occasional humane behaviour in the midst of barbarian death factories - one of the most frequent attempts to convey optimism in children's books on the Holocaust - necessarily cover up the 'radical evil' manifest in the cruelty of inhuman psychological and physical torture and industrialized massacre? Once again, the research project will not only reveal instances of a problematic attenuation and neutralization of the Holocaust in children's literature but also intends to trace this literature's creative attempts to face the existence of such evil while rescuing trust and belief in man's potential goodness and a better future for the human species.
This study will discuss the achievements and limitations of the existing research in the field and will develop and refine a methodological approach to Holocaust children's literature that raises the awareness of its specific challenges and possibilities. Close analyses of specific scenes, scenarios, figures and narrative forms will explore the ways in which the apparent incompatibility between children's literature and representations of the Holocaust can be overcome without false reconciliations and distorting concessions to its youthful readership. These analyses intend to reveal how some of the works in question successfully transform the conventional confinements of children's literature into instances of powerful aesthetic, ethical and imaginative literary experience. As a result, Holocaust children's literature will be presented as a literary discourse in its own right, with its own childlike resilience and its own unsteady but determined steps heading to hitherto unexplored places.


Mailing address: IJS
University of Antwerp
Prinsstraat 13 L.400
2000 Antwerp