Panelists Hamida Bosmajian and Eric Sundquist, at last weekend’s conference.
“The truth of the Holocaust shatters the idea that the world is a trustworthy place and that we’re here to protect children. When it comes to literature, we must first tell the truth to the age of the child,” said Sinai Temple librarian Lisa Silverman in her opening remarks on Sunday, February 1, at the Jewish Literature for Children Western Conference in Los Angeles.
Sponsored by several Jewish organizations and libraries in Southern California, the conference drew 77 teachers, writers and librarians to the Wiesenthal Center for a full day of panels and small group discussions about a variety of issues dealing with Jewish children’s literature. The morning session, “Teaching the Holocaust Through Literature,” was moderated by Adaire Klein, director of library and archival services at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Panelists included author Hamida Bosmajian, professor emeritus of the English Department at Seattle University; Talma Shulz, an instructor and lecturer with the nonprofit organization Facing History and Ourselves; Lisa Silverman, director of the Blumenthal Library at Sinai Temple and children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine; and author Eric Sundquist, UCLA Foundation professor of literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The session gave each panelist a chance to discuss his or her area of expertise in the field and lay the framework for the more specific discussions that would take place after lunch. Angel Girl, the discredited children’s picture book about the Holocaust by Laurie B. Friedman (published by Lerner in 2008, before being recalled from bookstores), was the topic of much conversation. Some attendees expressed discomfort about discarding any book on the grounds that censorship is not acceptable. This point was met with the suggestion to glue an errata slip inside the front cover saying: “The publisher has recalled this book. It has been discovered that although Herman Rosenblat was, in fact, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, the story of how he met his wife is fictional.”
Bosmajian encouraged a discussion about National Socialist literature for children in Germany during World War II. Surprised that the books did not expend a lot of energy vilifying Jews, she noted that instead they seemed to have a more encompassing theme of sacrificing everything, including one’s life, for country and homeland. Klein, however, disagreed somewhat, mentioning that there were books at the time that contained all of the known Jewish stereotypes. At the panel’s conclusion the attendees took a private guided tour of the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles and then had lunch at the Wiesenthal Center.
The afternoon session was broken into two segments: “Holocaust Literature as Part of the Curriculum in Elementary, Middle and High School” and “Viewing the Holocaust Through the Lens of Literature.” In the former, Silverman discussed an extensive annotated bibliography she had prepared of illustrated books dealing with the Holocaust. Among them was Friedman’s Angel Girl, which she cited as a disturbing example of how fraudulent books add questions to the authenticity of other books about the Holocaust. “It [Angel Girl] has such a good ending,” she said. “It fooled me. But there are no authentic Holocaust books with a good ending.”
Among her highest recommendations for young readers were The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm by David Adler (UAHC Press, 1987), Never-Ending Greenness by Neil Waldman (Boyds Mills Press, 2003) and Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche (Creative Editions, 1985). For middle-grade readers, Silverman added Anne Frank by Josephine Poole (Knopf, 2005) and Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat? by Nancy Patz (Dutton, 2003).
Other categories in Silverman’s presentation were “Righteous Gentiles and Sympathetic Rescuers,” “Holocaust as Sub-Text” and “Historical Truth.” In her talk, she pondered the abundance of books on the subject. “So many publishers are taking a stab at doing Holocaust-themed books for children, and each one thinks they have come up with something new. Many are not successful, and there are few buyers for them. Why do they keep trying? I can’t figure it out.”
Basmajian and Sundquist focused on The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel (Puffin, 2004) and Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter (Puffin, 1987) in their afternoon panel, bringing to light the question of the possible danger in reducing the Holocaust experience to language exclusively. Basmajian noted, “There is an abyss between language and experience. As Holocaust stories are told again and again, the concept of deconstruction comes into play.”
To avoid losing the authenticity of a story, moderator Klein urged writers to be fastidious about their research. “Your work will succeed if the historical support is there,” she said. “Nothing can take the place of the real thing!”
The conference provided manuscript consultations throughout the day. Authors in attendance included Susan Goldman Rubin, Sonia Levitin, Joan Stuckner, Sylvia Rouss, Barbara Bietz and Marc Lumer.