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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Teaching the Holocaust through Literature


“The historical, by its nature, tends to accent the unfolding of events while indicating social and political trends. Art, on the other hand, has always sought out the individual, his inner [world], and from that, it tries to understand the [outside] world. Art, perhaps only art, is the last defense against the banal, the commonplace and the irrelevant, and, to take it even further, the last defense against simplicity.”
– Aharon Appelfeld, Speech on the eve of Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, 1997, Yad Vashem

In the field of Holocaust education, teachers face a daunting two-fold task: they must impart the vital historical information on the Holocaust, and at the same time ensure its continued emotional relevance to a generation removed from the actual events. Needless to say, the first aim, on its own, is challenging. As most teachers know, the hours allotted to the subject usually are insufficient to comprehensively cover the topic, and they can often feel that precedence must be given to studying facts and figures.

The International School for Holocaust Studies, as part of its pedagogical approach, strives to assist educators in better understanding and presenting the Holocaust as a human story. By using literature in the classroom, primarily postwar poetry and memoirs written by survivors, the Holocaust can be translated from a massive historical process to a series of events which directly affected the life of the individual. In addition, Holocaust literature touches on the historical and the literary, making the field relevant to teachers of history, literature and English alike.

A lot has been written about the challenge for post-Holocaust writers to “describe the indescribable”, to find words that manage to convey what it was like to have been there, or what it’s like to continue living in the Holocaust’s wake. A fundamental distinction exists in the approach writers take to this subject: while some authors will recount events as they occurred, coupled with their insights on their own feelings and impressions at the time, others will take a more abstract approach. As Wagner and Raveh write in the teaching unit “Liberation”:

“One of the ways that Holocaust literature treats the unthinkable reality it represents is by avoiding a precise description of horror, and assuming instead different strategies of displacement. Strategies of displacement are stylistic devices which shift the fictional action away from the center of historical reality, toward marginal areas. This displacement occurs at different levels – in time and space, in the description of seemingly minor human states, by concentrating on the interior world of the protagonists, and so on.”
– Rotem Wagner & Inbar Raveh, “Liberation”, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1999, p. 3.

In this article we will present a sample of works by several authors, and demonstrate the different ways in which their work can highlight the human dimension of the Holocaust.

[Note: for literature teachers, a literary analysis exists in print for the first two of the following texts. See the “Liberation” teaching unit, listed in the right hand margin of the beginning of this article.]

“The Thaw” – Primo Levi

Primo Levi was born in Torino, Italy, in 1919 to a Jewish family. In 1941 he completed his chemistry studies at the local university. When the Germans invaded Italy in 1943, he joined a group of partisans. He was captured by Italian fascists, and when found to be Jewish, he was deported to the Monowitz-Auschwitz camp, where he remained until January 1945. It was thanks to his work as a chemist that he avoided an almost certain death. When he returned home, he wrote a concentration camp diary of sorts, which was published in 1947 under the name “If This is a Man”, which has become a classic of Holocaust literature. He continued writing and publishing until his death by suicide in Torino in 1987. Primo Levi is one of the most important writers of the age.

In “The Thaw”, the first chapter of Levi’s book The Reawakening, he describes the mingled optimism and exhaustion of the last days in Auschwitz before the liberation. With the Germans in retreat, after having abandoned Auschwitz in the face of the rapid Russian advance, the few remaining inmates who have not already succumbed to the cold, hunger, illness or the Nazis’ atrocities, face an uncertain future. Levi mostly writes in an immediate, vivid style, but he will sometimes touch on the poetic. This will occur during sequences that attempt to convey a particular emotion or the gravity of an important event. He describes the moment the camp prisoners first see their rescuers:

To us they seemed wonderfully concrete and real, perched on their enormous horses, between the grey of the snow and the grey of the sky, immobile beneath the gusts of damp wind which threatened a thaw.

It seemed to us, and so it was, that the nothing full of death in which we had wandered like spent stars for ten days had found its own solid center, a nucleus of condensation; four men, armed, but not against us: four messengers of peace, with rough and boyish faces beneath their heavy fur hats.[1]

Levi’s description has the obvious advantage of transporting the reader very realistically into a certain time and place. It touches upon the camp life that Levi is leaving, and the uncertain, rocky future he is facing. This alone is a significant contribution to the education process, presenting a palpable, detailed story of one person. However, Levi also raises issues and dilemmas that go above and beyond a simple chronological testimonial, and it is here that his texts can truly serve a broader pedagogical function – that of true empathy with the plight of the survivors, and the extremely difficult situations that they faced.

At one point, Levi describes the bittersweet feeling shared by liberator and liberated alike:

They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes to the funereal scene. It was the shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage.[1]

Here Levi raises the issues of guilt, the total loss of personal freedom, and of the helplessness to stop unjustified cruelty. These are three vitally important themes in Holocaust education, generating classroom discussion on the meaning of genocidal acts of violence, and on the moral consequences of passivity.

Naming the chapter “The Thaw”, and not “Liberation”, a seemingly more appropriate title, is also telling. Levi wishes to show that the physical liberation was only the beginning of a long and troubled journey. The many hurdles that Levi would still have to clear before his eventual return to his home country of Italy, and the mental torment that would follow him to his eventual suicide in 1987, mean that he was never completely liberated in the classic sense. Hence the ostensibly straightforward description gets an additional, symbolic meaning:

In the meantime, the thaw we had been fearing for so many days had started, and as the snow slowly disappeared, the camp began to change into a squalid bog.[1]

Levi’s factual, first-hand depiction of events and feelings stands at the more straightforward end of the spectrum. In contrast, many authors choose the aforementioned strategy of displacement from the actual events. One such example is “The Shelter”, a short story by Ida Fink.

“The Shelter” – Ida Fink

Ida Fink was born in Zbarazh, Poland in 1921. She studied music in Lvov, but was forced to put an end to her studies in 1941, upon the outbreak of war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. During the war she was in the Zbarazh ghetto, but then fled and lived under false papers on the “Aryan side.” In 1957 she immigrated to Israel. She has written short stories, a novel and a play, which have been translated from Polish into various languages.

In “The Shelter,” Fink depicts a chance encounter on a train with a married couple, on their return journey from a jarring visit. They proceed to recount their story. During the war, the couple had been kept hidden by a “foster family.” Already desperately poor when the family had agreed to take them in, the couple had promised them enough money to build a new house after the war. In the story’s riveting climax, the couple discovers a hiding area in the new home, just like the one they had constructed in the old house. The anonymous woman, describing the visit, says:

We began in the kitchen, then we went into the living room, the bedroom, and another room for the son who had returned from the army. We thought they had shown us everything, but then they said, "And we kept you in mind, too. Here, take a look!"

The husband pushed aside a wardrobe and I looked – a white, blank wall. But when he went down and touched the floor, I grabbed Olek’s hand [...] He lifted a red, waxed board and told us to look closely. "There, now, just in case something happens, you won’t have to roost like chickens, a shelter as pretty as a picture, with all the comforts!" [...]

“What are we supposed to make of that?” asked the man. “Sentenced to a hiding-place, sentenced to death once again? And by whom? By good people who wish us well. It’s appalling. To build a hiding-place out of the goodness of one’s heart! That’s what’s so horrible. There, in that house, it was as if I were kneeling above my own grave.” [2]

By removing the setting from a direct account of experiences during the war to a chance encounter on a train, Fink alludes to the all-pervasive nature of a survivor’s trauma. Their extreme reaction to the ostensible gesture of good will by their “foster family” is evidence of this. The story’s main contribution to the classroom is its open-endedness: it stops short of attaching an unequivocal value judgment to what happened. Students can debate whether this foster family’s intent was genuine or not, or whether that even matters. Was the couple’s reaction heavy-handed? Is the extra room really a symbolic grave, as the couple had put it, or the excusable result of wartime trauma?

The frame story, placing events after the war, touches also on another aspect for discussion. The first-person narrator behaves very naturally in the story, in that s/he struggles to say the right words. The narrator says at one point:

"Horrible," I repeated. I said something else about how the war twisted people, and I felt ashamed; it was so banal, so polite.[2]

The narrator’s behavior is typical of how a casual listener to such a story may react. Fink does not sugarcoat the reaction, despite being a survivor herself. Using this story, a teacher can start a discussion about the difficulty of feeling empathy towards the survivors experiences and, more fundamentally, towards the Holocaust. Levi’s story primarily focuses on the difficulties during the Holocaust, whereas Fink’s emphasis is in the here and now.

“Our Town is Burning” – Mordechai Gebirtig

“Our Town is Burning”, by Mordechai Gebirtig, was written in Yiddish in 1938, after a pogrom in Przytyk (prounounced “pshitic”), Poland. It is considered extraordinarily prophetic, in that it was written before the war. Gebirtig’s poems became very popular throughout the Jewish communities of Eastern Poland. The language and theme of this poem are less complex than the above stories, and therefore this text may be suitable for junior high school students.

Our Town is Burning / Mordechai Gebirtig

Our town is burning, brothers, burning
Our poor little town is burning.
Angry winds are fanning higher
The leaping tongues of flame and fire,
The evil winds are roaring!
Our whole town burns!

And you stand looking on with folded arms,
And shake your heads.
You stand looking on, with folded arms,
While the fire spreads!

Our town is burning, brothers, burning,
Our poor little town is burning.
Tongues of flame are leaping,
The fire through our town goes sweeping,
Through roofs and windows pouring.
All around us burns.

And you stand looking on with folded arms,
And shake your heads.
You stand looking on, with folded arms,
While the fire spreads!

Our town is burning, brothers, burning,
Any moment the fire may
Sweep the whole of our town away,
And leave only ashes, black and gray,
Life after a battle, where dead walls stand,
Broken and ruined in a desolate land.

And you stand looking on with folded arms,
And shake your heads.
You stand looking on, with folded arms,
While the fire spreads!

Our town is burning, brothers, burning,
All now depends on you.
Our only help is what you do.
You can still put out the fire
With your blood, if you desire.

Don’t look on with folded arms,
And shake your heads.
Don’t look on with folded arms
While the fire spreads.[3]

This poem raises the important issues of personal accountability, of the potential power of the individual in resisting the majority. That it was written before the Holocaust is instrumental for classroom discussion: using this poem, a teacher can demonstrate the value of precaution, of setting barriers that prevent a situation from spiralling into a volatile state. During the early teens, this lesson is particularly appropriate.


These texts are but a small selection of the post-Holocaust literature available. It is our hope that they have stimulated your interest, and have provided some ideas on how to approach teaching this difficult subject in the classroom. The next section of this e-newsletter is a sample lesson plan, outlining in greater detail how to discuss a similar text with students.

All the sample texts provided in this article are available, together with guidelines for classroom discussion, in various workbooks and teaching units designed by the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.

More information on Yad Vashem educational literature units on the Holocaust is available in the right margin at the top of this article.

[1] Primo Levi, The Reawakening, Collier Books, New York 1987, trans. from the Italian: Stuart Woolf.
[2] Ida Fink, “The Shelter”, A Scrap of Time, Northwestern University Press, 1995, trans. from the Polish: Francine Prose and Madeline Levine. Permission to reprint the excerpt has been granted by Writers House, LLC on behalf of the Proprietors.
[3] From Songs of the Ghettos, Ghetto Fighter’s House, Israel, 1998, p. 21.