Can Children’s Books Ever Do Justice to the Holocaust?

July 23 2018

In surveying literature for children about the Shoah, Ruth Franklin holds up Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Briar Rose (1992) as some of the best books in the genre, and compares them with such far less successful attempts as John Boyne’s popular The Boy in Striped Pajamas (2006). Yolen has recently written a third such book, Mapping the Bones, which, unlike her previous two, does not begin with a child encountering grandparents who are survivors. Franklin writes:

Not only are [Yolen’s] Holocaust books extensively researched, and their departures from historical fact scrupulously noted, but her fantasy framing devices also reflect a kind of imaginative humility about the difficulty of “truly understanding”—something to which Boyne, [for instance], pays only lip service. A book that involves time travel, [as does The Devil’s Arithmetic], deliberately relinquishes the possibility of being taken as historical fact. . . .

In The Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose, the primary emotional pull comes from the struggle of a character from a younger generation to come to grips with what happened to her grandparent. But, having dispensed with this framework, Mapping the Bones immerses us in [the young protagonists’] struggles directly. There’s no reason that Yolen should repeat herself, of course, and it makes sense that the troubles of survivors’ descendants don’t feel as pressing as they did 30 years ago. Most children today will never see a survivor’s tattooed arm. Those of us who did are likely trying to figure out how to approach the Holocaust with our own children, wanting them to recognize its significance in their family history without allowing that knowledge to burden or define them.

Still, to me, there’s something essential about the interactions among generations in the stories we tell about the Holocaust, and I don’t think that my view is merely the product of my own childhood. In Yolen’s first two Holocaust novels, a younger person literally bears witness to the stories of an older generation—either by experiencing them herself, as Hannah does, or by listening to the testimony of survivors. And the reader, by imagining herself in the place of the main character, can vicariously bear witness, too. If there’s a consolation in reading these books, that’s where it can be found. . . . We may emerge from these books without grasping the true horror of their stories. But at least we’ve learned how to listen to them.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Children's books, Holocaust, Holocaust fiction

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times