The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 12, No 1 (2008)

Font Size:  Small  Medium  Large

David Beagley, editor

Perpetrator, Collaborator, Liberator: What Do We Tell the Kids?

Monika Robbins

Monika Robbins is a junior at Mira Loma High School in Sacramento, California and a diploma candidate in the International Baccalaureate program. She is particularly interested in the process through which children learn, cultural influences on learning, and foreign languages. This study grew out of a term assignment and is her first published work.

"Qu'est-ce qu'un wagon à bestiaux, si ce n'est un wagon à bestiaux…On nourrit les bêtes qu'on y fait voyager…Pas les hommes. Si on avait voulu nourrir le hommes, on les aurait fait voyager dans des wagons à hommes."
("What is a cattle wagon if it is not a cattle wagon...We feed the cattle we transport…Not the men. If we wanted to feed the men we would transport them in wagons for men.")
- Grand-père by Gilles Rapaport


The children's literatures of Germany, France, and the United States differ fundamentally in how they portray the indescribable, explain the incomprehensible, and evoke the unimaginable in their representation of the Holocaust for their children.

In framing the comparisons of this study, Germany may be considered a perpetrator because it was the Nazi state that executed the Holocaust and the accompanying horrors, attempting to achieve the perfect Aryan society. France may be considered a collaborator because after the surrender, elements of society either assisted, or at least tolerated, the Nazi programs. The United States may be considered a liberator because when America finally became involved in the war, it enabled the final campaigns that ended the conflict and brought the horrors of the camps to the world’s attention.

Certainly other nations and communities could be defined in each of those roles as well.  This study is constructed as a comparison of whether those roles might have an impact on the representation of the Holocaust in the children’s literature of these communities.

The passage from Grand-père by Gilles Rapaport demonstrates a typically French point of view and epitomizes a subtle, yet direct approach in teaching their children about the Holocaust. Since picture books provide children with their first literary impressions of life, how does the literature of Germany, France, and the United States reflect the roles they may be assigned as perpetrator, collaborator, and liberator, respectively?

Picture books were investigated because they give children their first impressions, and are often the first form of instruction children have. While not a systematic survey of the literature available in each of the three languages, the works were selected on the basis of availability, visual appeal, and reading level appropriate to the first reader level. The books were sought on the shelves of large urban bookstores in Paris, Berlin and Sacramento, the book shops associated with museums and monuments related to the holocaust or Jewish history, online catalogs of major booksellers in Germany, France and the United States, and the suggestions of sales people, librarians and institutional staff members who took an interest.

In German, the picture books Otto: Autobiographie eines Teddybären (Otto: Autobiography of a Teddybear) by Anna von Cramer Klett, Rosa Weiss (White Rose) by Roberto Innocenti, Als Eure Großeltern Jung Waren (When Your Grandparents Were Young) by Judith S. Kestenberg, and Rote Wangen (Red Cheeks) by Heniz Janisch were read. The German books told stories of children's personal experiences or those of their grandparents during the Holocaust. The French books read were Simon, le petit évadé: L’enfant du 20e convoi (Simon, the little escapee: the child of the 20th convoy) by Simon Gronowski, Grand-père (Grandfather) by Gilles Rapaport, and Les Trois Secrets d’Alexandra (The Three Secrets of Alexandra) series by Didier Daeninckx. The French books were all first person narratives of survivors and emphasized the resistance effort. The books published in English were The Little Boy Star by Rachel Hausfater, The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm by David A. Adler, Terrible Things by Eve Bunting, and The Tattooed Torah by Marvell Ginsburg. These English books were more explicitly Jewish in theme and tended to be allegorical and symbolic, or about a grandparent.

There were distinct differences among the literature from the three countries. The German books had the most variety of topics and modes. Of all the books, Als Eure Großeltern Jung Waren gives the most concrete and direct descriptions of Nazi activity in Germany during the Holocaust, depicting the in outline form the history of the period accompanied by drawings resembling the crayon doodles of a young child. On the other hand, Rote Wangen is a story about the Holocaust told completely through symbolism. It is told by a grandfather, liberated by senility, who can finally tell his war stories, which are distorted by the kaleidoscope of his failing mind. The stories the grandfather tells are therefore deeply symbolic, and only one story directly mentions the war at all: one in which the grandfather is homesick, so he jumps out of his airplane and lands in his own rocking chair at home. However, all of the stories relate to the rise of Nazi power and the feelings of Germany. The first story the grandfather tells his grandson is of a drawer filled with water that wants to overflow, which symbolizes Germany's burgeoning military power and its need for lebensraum, or living space, that would eventually cause them to acquire Austria and Czechoslovakia, invade Poland, and start World War II. One of the last stories he tells his grandson is of the time he found a rare, undiscovered, long beaked animal species in a cave and protected them by keeping his discovery secret. This symbolizes his discovery of a hidden Jewish family that he did not reveal to the police. The illustrations concretely depict the fantastic scenes evoking the conflict inherent in depicting these topics in a German medium for a German child.

Parents reading this book with their child might recognize the symbolism and, if they wish, discuss some of the larger themes that are made safe through absurdity. Perhaps contemporary parents reading this book to their children might forgive their own parents' evasions and transgressions, recognizing that distortions of memory are all too human. Perhaps the pathos of the demented grandfather might lead to forgiveness. The German authors want children to understand that the Holocaust was evil and that national leaders and parents are not omnipotent.

All of the German books portray military activity negatively, especially Rosa Weiss. The only exception to this is the sympathetic portrayal of the American soldiers in Otto: Autobiographie eines Teddybären. In Rosa Weiss, the German army comes through town. At first the citizens are happy to see them, but as time progresses, the soldiers become increasingly unwelcome. At the end of the book, a soldier, perhaps Russian, kills Rosa and

“…an diesem Tag kamen andere Soldaten in die Stadt. Ihre Uniformen hatten eine andere Farbe und sie sprachen eine andere Sprache. Auch sie hatten Lastwagen und ihre Panzer machten Lärm und stanken” (…on this day, other soldiers came into the city. Their uniforms had another color and they spoke another language. Also, they had trucks and their tanks made noise and stank).

Rosa Weiss showed that even though Rosa, drawn as an Aryan child with blond hair and blue eyes, was not targeted by the Nazis, she was put in danger too, when she went to the woods to look for the concentration camp. Eventually, she was killed, even though she did good deeds by giving food to the captured children. It shows that war is futile and death comes randomly. The American soldier in Otto: Autobiographie eines Teddybären is a black man, which makes one think of racial injustice in the United States, and that every country makes mistakes. Not even the country that considers itself the liberator is perfect. The German books had the largest range of topics and styles, perhaps because they have the greatest problem to address.

The French books stressed the resistance effort, and de-emphasize French collaboration with Germany. Even here there is ambiguity. One illustration depicts a furtive man in a trench coat leaving the police station as a Jewish family is arrested. He might be a Nazi agent, a collaborator, a resistance member gathering information or a sympathetic just released prisoner.  The only book that discussed collaboration with Hitler was Viva la liberté! (Long Live Liberty), which is about a man who fought in the resistance. Many of the books emphasized the difference one individual could make to the war effort, and told stories of personal heroism. In the book Simon, le petit évadé, Simon, the protagonist, demonstrates courage by jumping out of the convoy train to escape deportation. The people that help him are courageous as well. They hid him and were able to save his life, though many others, including his mother and sister, were killed. In the book Grand-père, the grandfather shows courage by going to war against the Germans and surviving a concentration camp. The scene in which he prays to God to let him die shows that even the strongest and most courageous man can have feelings of defeat when placed in horrible circumstances.

Likewise, all of the volumes in Les Trois Secrets d’Alexandra, a collection of three books, are stories of individual courage in opposition to social complacency: the policeman in Il faut désobéir (One must Disobey) who orders the grandfather and his family to leave and hide because otherwise they would be arrested, the great-aunt in Un violon dans la nuit (A Violin in the night) who shows courage in the concentration camps and survives by playing music in her head, and the great-grandfather in Viva la liberté! (Long Live Liberty) who takes part in the resistance, and whose best friend is killed after being arrested by the Nazis. These books also promote French nationalism. They speak of the heroic deeds performed during the war and praise the rich history of France. The historical photographs in Les Trois Secrets show history more concretely than any of the books in German, French, or English. The French books show children the importance of individuals and the greatness of France.

The American books, written from their self-confident view of themselves as the liberator, either adopted the point of view of the victim or illustrated moral values. In Terrible Things by Eve Bunting, the Little Rabbit shows children that if he and the other animals had confronted the Terrible Things at the beginning, the animals might have survived and not been conquered. The author tells children that some people ignored the murders of millions of their neighbors, “If everyone had stood together at the first sign of evil, would this have happened? Standing up for what you know is right is not always easy. Especially if the one you face is bigger and stronger than you. It is easier to look the other way. But if you do, terrible things can happen.”

The other American books taught that even though the Nazis had tried to mark and degrade their victims using tattooed numbers and yellow stars, the survivors were able to regain their pride. The protagonist in The Little Boy Star has to wear a star, but once the war is over he no longer wears the star and “[The half-suns and half-stars] taught him how to live again in full daylight.” In The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm, the child helps her grandfather realize that he didn’t do anything wrong, the Nazis did, so he shouldn’t be ashamed of his tattoo. The tattooed torah in The Tattooed Torah feels “happy now” when the boy’s father tells him, “‘From now on, Little Torah, we will always take good care of you’”. The American books teach the children that even if bad things happen to a person, symbolized by the tattoos during the Holocaust; this does not mean he is worthless. The American books concentrate on positive attitudes for children rather than the exact events of the Holocaust.

Interestingly, the French books and American books portray the victim differently than the German books. The books of what may be considered the liberator and collaborator emphasize the marking of the victim. Three of the four American books focused on the tattoo or the yellow star. In two of the five French books, the tattoo is a central part of the story, particularly in Un violon dans la nuit. This demonstrates that the books from these countries are more victim oriented, rather than the German books which are more explanatory.

Despite their differences, the German, French, and American books have some similarities as well. Memory plays a large part in the books from all of the countries. Each country has at least one book in which a grandfather or other family member remembers the Holocaust. In Rote Wangen, the grandfather cannot even begin to remember the Holocaust until he is old and senile, and even then he can’t recount exactly how it happened, he has reduced it to symbols. This suggests the German people can't fully comprehend what happened and don't know how to address it. James Young states "Holocaust memorial-work in Germany today remains a tortured, self-reflective, even paralyzing preoccupation" (20). In the other books, grandparents tell the story simplistically, partly because they were children when the Holocaust occurred. Therefore, they remember history only from a narrow perspective. These grandparents were only children during World War II, so their vocabulary was limited then and even now they cannot find the words to truly express what happened. Hamida Bosmajian addresses the lack of human language to describe the Holocaust when she says, “If we had a language that could truly represent the horror of the Holocaust, we would shun and flee the speaker of that language for Auschwitz - the site where human beings were demolished - is a radical antithesis to human desire” (125).

Memory is a major theme in these stories. All families have legends, just as countries have tales of past leaders and heroic events. Families and countries use these legends to help understand themselves. Young writes that because Holocaust memorials in America focus on Jews "not only will the Holocaust continue to suggest itself as a center of American Jewish consciousness, but it will become all that non-Jewish Americans know about a thousand years of European Jewish civilization" (349). In spite of this risk, the Holocaust is an important event that needs to be remembered, and can help the children understand the history and aspirations of their country and, therefore, their own.

Another point in common is that each story contains a message of hope. The principal hope is that the Holocaust will never occur again. The books also speak of hope for the future of mankind, for forgiveness, for acceptance, and for the ability to understand why the Holocaust happened. Through exposure to the Holocaust at a young age, children learn critical lessons about racism, anti-Semitism, war, national identity, self image, and acceptance. These lessons provide the hope for the future of mankind. The people affected by the Holocaust, in whichever role, hope that they will be able to forgive, and Germany hopes to be forgiven for the atrocities it perpetrated. Those personally involved in the Holocaust hope that society today can accept them, and not blame or pity them for what happened in the past. The books express hope for the ability to understand the origins of the Holocaust because no one can create a logical explanation for the Holocaust, apart from Hitler's insanity and the Nazi delusion. The insanity of one man, whether or not he is the absolute ruler, should not lead a country to send millions of innocent people to their deaths, yet somehow it did. Not even historians of the Holocaust understand it.

All of the books mean to educate young children about the Holocaust and how to keep it from happening again. These early images will stick with the child for life, and therefore are very important. When children are young, only four to eight years old, they are open to different ideas and also are going to think about things for themselves, and not listen to what their peers or others tell them. These books are a good way for a parent to introduce the topic and show their child what happened. Hopefully, distaste for prejudice will become ingrained in their minds. All of the books tell of memory and hope, and educate their children about tolerance.

Clearly there were differences in the ways perpetrator, collaborator, and liberator have discussed the Holocaust, but all mean to show their children that the Holocaust was evil and destructive. Germany, France and the United States use children's books to educate their future populations about the horrors of prejudice and what can happen if one allows prejudice to rule.

"Nous pouvons porter en nous la mémoire [de la Shoah]" (We can carry in us the memory [of the Holocaust]) --Jean-Pierre Guéno (5)


Works cited

Adler, David A. The Number on My Grandfather's Arm. New York: UAHC Press, 1987.

Bosmajian, Hamida. Sparing the Child: Grief and the Unspeakable in Youth Literature about Nazism and the Holocaust. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Bunting, Eve. Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1980.

Daeninckx, Didier. Il faut désobéir. Saint-Germain-du-Puy: Rue du Monde, 2002.

---, Un violon dans la nuit. Saint-Germain-du-Puy: Rue du Monde, 2003.

---, Viva la liberté! Saint-Germain-du-Puy: Rue du Monde, 2004.

Gallaz, Christopher and Roberto Innocenti. Rosa Weiss. Trans. Mirjam Pressler. Düsseldorf: Sauerländer Verlag, 1985.

Ginsburg, Marvell. The Tattooed Torah. New York: UAHC Press, 1983.

Gronowski, Simon. Simon, le petit évadé:L'enfant du 20e Convoi. Brussels: Éditions Luc Pire, 2005.

Guéno, Jean Pierre and Jérôme Pecnard. Parole d'étoiles: L'album des enfants cachés. Paris: Éditions des Arènes, 2002.

Haufsater, Rachel. The Little Boy Star: An Allegory of the Holocaust. Trans. Joëlle Zimmerman. New York: Milk and Cookies Press, 2001.

Janisch, Heinz. Rote Wangen. Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 2005.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1987.

---, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1983.

Kestenberg, Judith S. Als Eure Großeltern jung waren. Hamburg: Reinhold Krämer Verlag, 1993.

Rapaport, Gilles. Grand-père. Italy: Albums Circonflexe, 1999.

Ungerer, Tomi. Otto: Autobiographies eines Teddybären. Trans. Anna von Cramer-Klett. Zürich: Diogenes, 1999.

Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.


Monika Robbins

Volume 12, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January/February, 2008

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2008.
"Perpetrator, Collaborator, Liberator: what do we tell the kids?" © Monika Robbins, 2008
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor

The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680