Teaching the Holocaust through children’s poetry

Is the Holocaust a subject which is appropriate for learning in primary schools? My answer would be an emphatic ‘yes’. I was fortunate to be a student teacher at a village school which tackled this very subject as part of its World War Two project with a mixed Year Five/Six class.

Our main text for the unit was The Diary of Anne Frank which fascinated the children as they could identify with this young girl. My supporting text was the wonderful book Rose Blanche by Ian McEwan which examines resistance to the Nazis from within Germany, particularly by young people.

We also went on a school trip to The National Holocaust Centre and Museum at Newark in Nottinghamshire. The centre has a special programme for primary school children, called The Journey, which teaches about the Holocaust at an age-appropriate level and through the eyes of children. We were also fortunate enough to have a talk, followed by a question-and-answer session with a lady who had been on the Kinder Transport. You can watch a short video of children from various schools talking about their visit here.

So what can poetry add to primary children’s experience of learning about the Holocaust? Well the International School for Holocaust Studies has a series of poems, linked with artwork, which are accessible and suitable for Key Stage Three children. I think some of them could also be studied by Year Five/ Six children. Take Shema by Primo Levi.

Levi, a chemist, was deported to Auschwitz and survived the war. His novels and poems make powerful reading. You can read the full text of the poem here. There is also an illustrated version of the poem which can be downloaded from this link. This is an extract:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.

There are teachers’ notes with the poem, so there is no point me repeating them here. As with many of my suggested poetry activities, it might be useful to begin with the image (which shows three figures – two Holocaust victims, and one from the generation which survived). You could discuss who they might be, what lives they might have had, and how they are different.

I think that study of this poem does assume some knowledge already of the Holocaust, and it may be that it would fit in towards the end of a unit which has included learning about Anne Frank. Certainly the five lines shown above have enough in them to stimulate a mature debate about the rights of humankind. The debate could also be broadened to include discussion of discrimination in the world today.

Here is a video from the Yad Vashem project about the poem. Judge for yourself whether you think this is suitable for Years 5 and 6, but I think most children could cope with this content and would be interested to learn about it.

There is also a collection of poems written by children whilst in the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Here is a link to them. Pavel Friedman’s poem The Butterfly is especially powerful. It tells of the very last butterfly seen in the ghetto:

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone …

I think children could easily relate to this poem. Pavel is believed to have been 17 when he wrote it. He died in 1944 at Auschwitz and it wasn’t until after his death that the poem was discovered. The full text of the poem is on the above link. The poem could easily be used as a stimulus to artwork portraying the horror of the camps in contrast to the enduring beauty of nature. There is a song inspired by this poem here.

If you have used any poems about the Holocaust at primary level, I would be interested to hear about them and add them to this page. Similarly, if you have experience of primary children writing their own poetry about the Holocaust, please send me any examples which I could add here.

Note

National Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th 2015. You can find resources here.

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