About the book: Yellow Star is based on the true story of my Aunt Syvia, who was one of only 12 children to survive the Lodz Ghetto in Poland. I wrote it in first-person, free verse — poetry with little or no rhyme and rhythm that flows like regular speech. I hoped this lyrical style would allow young readers to walk in young Syvia’s shoes, to feel her emotions and the love of her family, and to understand what her life was like as a Jewish child in the ghetto.
Activity to try: Perform Yellow Star as Readers’ Theater. Have students — individually or in pairs — choose a few verses to read aloud to the class. Help them practice rhythm, voice inflection, and unfamiliar words before reading. Afterward, give readers a chance to discuss why they chose their particular verses.
About the book: Milkweed, by Jerry Spinelli, takes place in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, in the city’s large Jewish ghetto. The main character, an orphan with no name, is an unlikely hero whose observations give readers a full sensory experience of the time and place.
Activity to try: Have students choose one of the places Jewish children experienced during the war. For example, the boys in Milkweed sleep in rubble on an old braided rug, huddled together for warmth. Have students imagine what it would be like in that place. What do they hear? Smell? See? What can they touch? Have them write a one-page description. Encourage students to use specific language to make the setting come to life.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly
About the book: I Never Saw Another Butterfly is a moving collection of drawings and poems made by the children in the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia. While today there is no trace left of the misery and terror that took place in this small town outside of Prague, the voices of its children can still be heard. Open up to any page and a real child’s picture or words capture a happy memory, a hopeful wish, or a harsh reality. Middle-school students will relate to the art, making this book a powerful learning experience.
Activity to try: Designate a space in your classroom as a Holocaust exhibit. Have students donate their own paintings, collages, dioramas, and poetry relating to the Holocaust. Invite parents and other classes to visit your museum.
Number the Stars
About the book: Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars is based on the Danish resistance. Annemarie, the main character, risks her own life to save her Jewish best friend. She learns that while prejudice can destroy, loyalty and love help people endure even the worst conditions.
Activity to try: Ask each student to choose a country and report on that country’s involvement in World War II. Was it part of the Axis, Allies, or was it neutral? How did it contribute, help, or cause harm? (Suggested countries: Germany, Japan, Italy, United States, the USSR, Great Britain, France, Denmark, Holland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, China, Australia, Canada, Sweden.)
The Upstairs Room
About the book: In The Upstairs Room, a fictionalized account of Johanna Reiss’s life in Holland, Annie and her older sister must hide from the Nazis in the small upstairs bedroom belonging to a Gentile farmer named Johan. Johan, his wife Dientje, and Opoe (Granny) become the girls’ surrogate family, keeping them hidden and safe for two years until the war ends.
Activity to try: Have students make descriptive character webs of the people they meet in Holocaust literature. For example, a graphic organizer for characters in The Upstairs Room could show how life in hiding affected Annie’s appearance, with words like “pale,” “wobbly legs,” and “hair dyed red.” Johan’s web might contain personality traits such as “courageous” and “kind.”
The Devil’s Arithmetic
About the book: Hannah, the main character in Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, begins the book by saying, “I’m tired of remembering.” After time-traveling into the heart of the Holocaust, Hannah is forever changed. She is determined to remember.
Activity to try: Have students fill out a “Now” vs. “Then” time-travel chart. “Travel” back to a city in World War II and fill in facts such as date, location, government/leaders, food, clothing, etc. Label that section “Then.” For “Now,” have students research a place where children are experiencing war or suffering (e.g., Darfur, Sudan; Baghdad, Iraq). Fill in the same facts. Linking today’s world with the past can help students realize that history is ongoing, and only by learning and remembering can we change the future for the better.