I have spent quite a bit of time in the last couple years planning our WWII unit, and trying to figure out how I should go about teaching children about the Holocaust. For our last couple months here in Germany, I wanted to make sure we took the time to learn this history while we are here, instead of coming back to study it later, and regretting not visiting some of the museums and sites around Europe.
Its not an easy topic to teach. It’s such a dark, sad time, and I really struggled to find sources appropriate for elementary students. I realized that picture books, read together, and followed by a lot of conversation was probably the way to go.
We started our unit by reading Terrible Things, an allegory by Eve Bunting. This really is an ideal book for introducing the Holocaust to students. Its a story about the forest creatures who are being taken away by the “Terrible Things” who keep invading their little clearing in the woods. First, they only take the birds, and the other creatures begin to say things like “they were too loud anyways” and “don’t worry, they won’t come for us.” One by one, each type of animal is taken away, and each time, they say “it won’t be us” and do nothing to stop it. In the end, no one is safe.
Since the book was about animals, and not people, I was able to have a wonderful discussion about what happened, and why the forest animals didn’t help each other. From here, we continued with other books that focused on individual people, towns, and events.
For my family, I tried to find books that highlight the bright spots. While WWII is full of terrible, terrible things, there are also stories of hope, survival, and courage. Stories about people saving children, a boy who survived because he played beautiful music, whole towns working together to hide one family.
More than that, I wanted to leave my children with an understanding that yes, terrible thing happened. Yes, there is evil in the world. But there is also good. And good can start with one person. As we are reading each of these books, we are having conversations about those bright spots. I’m helping them see the good actions of the people in the books. And we’re following these books with books on peace, and good things happening in the world today.
It’s not an easy topic, and when you choose to discuss it with your children is a very personal choice. Bug is 8, and I purposely waited until our last few months in Germany to enter into this topic. These books I think are appropriate for all ages, really, so some of them may be an ideal way to start a WWII unit with any child, even older ones.
Picture Books for Teaching Children about the Holocaust:
The Little Ships: The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II
The Greatest Skating Race: A World War II Story from the Netherlands
The Whispering Town (Holocaust)
The Cats In Krasinkski Square
Concentration Camps and Stories of Hope
Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin
The Homefront USA
After the War
Books About Peace