Easily the most common focus in children’s literature about WWII, The Holocaust is an urgent, yet difficult historical event to present to young children.
Today’s titles suit a variety of ages and emphasize the bravery of those who stood with the Jewish people at the risk of their own lives.
Anne Frank, written by Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett published in 2005 by Alfred A. Knopf
There are a number of picture book biographies of Anne Frank. I like this one for the beauty of its language, the careful clarity of its explanations, the excellence in choice of details that bring Anne’s story alive, and the stunning, evocative illustrations.
We are introduced to Anne as a little girl, standing over the cradle of her baby sister. The familial warmth and charm is quickly overshadowed by the menace of the Nazis, the humiliation, the ever-shrinking circle of security for Anne and her family. Yet Anne shines out as a person we love and care about. Her death is noted on the final page of this story, as her father is presented with her diary.
It’s a well-crafted account in every way which could be shared with children ages 6 and up.
Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, written by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth published in 2011 by Holiday House
Irena Sendler was an immensely brave Polish woman whose work has also been written about in a number of books for young children. I reviewed one, Irena’s Jars of Secrets, here.
This is a much longer account for slightly older children. Rubin is a master of non-fiction and presents the intrepid savvy of Sendler with clarity and force.
This is the story of how a young, Catholic woman in Warsaw unflinchingly demonstrated solidarity with the persecuted Jewish people, and made it her business to help rescue thousands of children from the ghetto. Despite the price on her head, Sendler risked her life again and again to obtain freedom for others. It’s an astonishing story, here illustrated with serious, emotive oil paintings. Ages 9 and up.
The Butterfly, written and illustrated by Patrica Polacco published in 2000 by Philomel Books
From Amsterdam, to Warsaw, and now to the small French village of Choisi-le Roi, where a little girl named Monique and her family live under Nazi rule.
Monique begins to witness the terrible persecution of her Jewish friends in the village and then discovers something even stranger: an unknown girl is being sheltered in her home. It’s a discovery she wasn’t supposed to make, in order to prevent her from mistakenly blabbing the secret.
Eventually, their Jewish guest is discovered and a dangerous mission to spirit her away must be carried out.
This is a fictionalized account based on stories from Polacco’s aunt, a member of the French underground movement. As always, Polacco tells her story with compassion, honesty, and perfect pacing, and illustrates it with her lovely human figures. Ages 6 and up.
Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived World War II, written and illustrated by Marisabina Russo published in 2005 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
And now to Germany, with Russo narrating the story of her mother, grandmother, and two aunts, all attempting to survive Hitler’s war.
Their story is told through the device of a grandmother walking through the pages of her scrapbook with her granddaughter. Born and raised in Poland, she had moved to Germany as a young woman prior to WWI because, incredibly, Jews were better treated there.
She was a young widow with three daughters when the Nazis came to power. Miraculously, all four would survive the war, though grandmother and one daughter were placed in concentration camps. The power of a family’s love to give strength for the darkest of days is the thread woven through this moving account.
Illustrations augment the feel of a scrapbook, an afterword tells more of the story, and the endpapers are strewn with historic photos of the author’s family. Ages 7 and up.
Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story, written by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee published in 1997 by Lee & Low
Imagine — a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania rescuing Polish Jews from German invaders.
That’s the incredible story here. Chiune Sugihara was able to save as many as 10,000 Jewish refugees due to his compassion, moral compass, quick thinking, and nerves of steel.
Over a period of about a month in 1940, at great risk, Sugihara invented paperwork allowing these Jews to escape the oncoming Nazi armies. It’s a story of civil disobedience that came with a cost. Dom Lee’s sepia-toned illustrations emphasize the dignity and humanity of all concerned. Ages 7 and up.
Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust, written by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano, color by Greg Salsedo, translated to English by Alexis Siegel published in France, 2012; first English translation 2014 by First Second
Again, a grandmother’s account of her experiences form the structure of this book, but it’s a graphic novel this time with more emotionally-distressing content. I’d recommend it for ages 11 and up.
Dounia Cohen is a young Jewish schoolgirl in France. As the grim treatment of Jews intensifies, Dounia’s parents prepare a safe hiding place for her in their home. One night, as angry fists pound at the door, Dounia is stuffed into the secret space and told by her parents not to move until someone comes for her. She waits, terrified, as her parents are arrested and the darkness seems to smother her.
Rescued by a neighbor, Dounia is given a new name, religion, family, and home in the French countryside. At the end of the war, she is reunited with her mother who has survived the concentration camps. It’s been a long, bitter journey for both of them, and the grief over losing her father has never disappeared.
This honest, emotional, sorrowful story, is portrayed powerfully via the graphic novel format. It’s not nearly as intense as Spiegelman’s Maus, so it makes an excellent choice for middle-graders.
His Name was Raoul Wallenberg: Courage, Rescue, and Mystery During World War II, written by Louise Borden published in 2012 by HMH Books for Young Readers 122 pages
Finally, this nonfiction account of another diplomat, this time Swedish, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
It’s written in free verse by the talented Louise Borden, who crafts this complicated story into a highly-readable account of a heroic man.
Like Mr. Sugihara, Wallenberg found himself in a position in which his government was unable to provide the degree of protection he knew the Jewish people required. It was up to him to fabricate paperwork that would save their lives while not exposing the neutral Swedish government to danger.
Wallenberg paid for his courage with his life. “His enduring legacy” Borden notes, is “the knowledge that one person can make a difference in the world.” It’s a thought-provoking read that will generate discussion about civil disobedience for middle-graders and up. Illustrated with historic photos.
More WWII titles can be found in my Subject Index under History. I’d also like to draw your attention to a beautiful and unusual story I included in a post about Islam:
The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust, written by Karen Gray Ruelle, illustrated by Deborah Durland DeSaix, published in 2009 by Holiday House