Building a Bridge through Books

This is a revised version of a post first published in January 2013, linking to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s theme that year of communities working together to ‘build a bridge’.

Image taken from the cover of 'Once' by Morris Gleitzman, published by Puffin. You can find out more about the book here:
Image taken from the cover of ‘Once’ by Morris Gleitzman, published by Puffin. You can find out more about the book here:

Planning for the forthcoming SATE seminar on Teaching the Holocaust through Literature in September 2016, I recalled a blog post I’d written in 2013 where I’d discussed my experiences of working with pupils in the Broad General Education using fictional accounts of the Holocaust. This followed on from a trip to Amsterdam with my then seven year old daughter where we visited the Anne Frank House. I’m hoping September’s SATE seminar will provide the opportunity to discuss some of the issues mentioned here, both about fictional accounts and age appropriateness of texts.


Sunday 27 January marks Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. It is a date now part of many schools’ calendars with commemorative assemblies, projects, visits and presentations taking place. I’ve actively supported HMD since it began in 2001 and this year, my S1 book club will commemorate the date by meeting to discuss our feelings and reactions to a book we have all been reading in our own time over the last four weeks. It’s ‘Once’ by Morris Gleitzman, the first of five books about Felix, a Jewish boy who we meet in Poland in 1942.  When copies of ‘Once’ were handed out to the group, we spent our meeting listening to one of the school’s Religious Studies teachers telling us a bit about the background to the Holocaust. Giving the pupils this information was important, and at meetings since, pupils (and staff) have been discussing little snippets to do with the book, not about plot or character, but about how we are feeling when reading it. We will meet up this week to have our discussion, to talk about the book, its wider context and the continued relevance of the subject matter. I’ve done this a number of times since 2001 and have continually been amazed at the reaction of pupils and how insightful their discussion has been especially as they are committing to a novel to read for pleasure, in their own time.

Stepping back into the classroom, this got me thinking about how English teachers teach the Holocaust through literature and mainly within the BGE. The most common titles in my experience, particularly in the lower school, are ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, Ian Serailler’s ‘The Silver Sword’, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, also a film, and John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. The latter is also taught separately as a film text using the 2008 film directed by Mark Herman. It has been a privilege to work with pupils on many of these texts, to support and encourage discussion and try to come to a shared understanding that the horrors unfolding on the page or on the screen are not confined to the past. All these texts give voice to young people and that resonates strongly with pupils. Another such novel for this age group I’d recommend is ‘Emil and Karl’ by Yankev Glatshteyn, originally published in Yiddish in 1938 and which chillingly imagines some of the horrors which were to become a terrible reality.

I know of one instance where a teacher had to provide a single pupil with separate work whilst the rest of the class studied ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. A parent had been concerned their child was ‘too young’ to deal with the horrors discussed. This got me thinking about what the ‘best’ age is for a subject of this nature and whether protecting or shielding young people is the ‘right’ thing to do. I recently spent a long weekend in Amsterdam with my seven-year-old and initially decided not to visit Anne Frank’s house on the basis that my daughter was ‘too young’. We did visit but I did my homework first, using the museum’s website as a guide to age appropriateness. We avoided the introductory video footage and a large part of the museum’s photographs at the end. Together, we had many discussions, both before and after visiting. At seven, I do feel she’s too young for the aforementioned books but I will suggest in time that she reads them or perhaps that we do together.

I don’t believe in censoring children’s reading but the issue of Holocaust texts being studied in the primary classroom also doesn’t sit comfortably with me. This is a discussion I want to have with other teachers, to decide if my view (from a professional secondary slant combined with being a parent of a primary-age child) is justified. My unease first came about when I heard of Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ being used in a primary school but many pupils coming into S1 will talk of having worked with ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ during their upper years in primary school. Admittedly, the simplicity in narrative and structure of both Boyne and Gleitzman’s children’s novels mask the issues underneath. The central characters are young with an innocent naiveté that adds humour. But there’s another ongoing debate here as to whether a contemporary young adult and children’s fiction centre around the Holocaust is appropriate.  John Boyne certainly found this, writing as an author who was ‘relatively young … who isn’t Jewish and wasn’t there’ (The Guardian 29.11.10).  These issues trouble me and I don’t have answers that soothe this unease. I just know that, as humans, with our love of stories, these fictional accounts are important tools in helping future generations connect with a period that should never be forgotten

So back to ‘Once’. I will read it this week for what I think will be about the 12th time. I look forward to discussing my reading of it with pupils and other staff, all of whom are coming to it new, and seeing it afresh through their eyes.

Susan Brownlie

For further information on how to attend SATE’s Teaching the Holocaust through Literature twilight seminar on Wednesday 21st September 2016, please see

 The seminar is being led by The Holocaust Education Trust.  You can find out about their work here: 

Susan Brownlie is SATE Local Authority Coordinator for South Lanarkshire.  Any views expressed here are her own, not those of her employer or SATE.




2 thoughts on “Building a Bridge through Books”

  1. You raise some really important questions about the age-appropriateness of what we do, Suz. NATE conference had a panel discussion on much the same issue about ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, with experts in junior, senior and Higher education all making a case for how the play could be looked at in ways appropriate to their levels. It is a minefield – yet children all over the world are suffering the realities of horrendous wars and famines and displacement, and I absolutely agree that, if we do it carefully and sensitively, we can use the worst of the worst to build bridges of empathy. Many thanks, and I’m looking forward to the seminar very much!

  2. I just wanted to agree with you on your thought re Holocuast texts being studied in primary schools. Often we have little choice left in our ‘book cupboard’ and have to repeat these texts with the pupils. The cry of ‘but we did this in P6/7 Miss’ immediately gets my back up. I know from that point on I have lost the majority of the audience’s interest and no matter how many varied activities, it is difficult to claw this back. Then the underlying themes can be more that a little harrowing for children aged 10 and 11. I recently heard of a primary school who have studied Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ with their upper primary classes. Now I can barely read this without the words catching in my throat as I picture the cruel death, how on earth can this be put over to pupils who we attempt to shield from the general atrocities of this world?
    I am in no way demeaning the teaching and work that the primary teachers put in with these texts, after all they give us a good springboard to build on the learning from S1 onwards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *