Illuminating the Future: The Importance of Holocaust Literature

The Holocaust Memorial of Valašské Meziříčí, Czech Republic. Image Credit: Radim Holiš | Wikimedia Commons

April is a reminder of spring, a celebration of poetry, and the start of much new life. However, it is also a time to remember the depths of human suffering and not shy away from our horrific communal history.

In less than a month, the world will see the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day, when the German military signed an unconditional surrender agreement, ending World War II on the continent. This moment started the freeing of thousands of prisoners in killing camps, work camps, and concentration camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Thousands died after the camps were liberated, already too starved and sick to carry on.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany. Image via xamou-art.com

This year, April 12 marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we pause to reflect on our past and the millions of lives lost—and thousands saved—over the course of the Shoah. Today there are less than half a million Holocaust survivors left, including those who lived under Occupied rule during the war, even if they were not sent to camps. However, the number is dropping fast, as even the youngest survivors are now in their eighties and nineties. They are scattered all over the world, with some living in poverty and most still haunted by the loss of family and the memories of torture and dehumanization by their own governments.

As survivors dwindle and echoes of the actions leading to the Holocaust can be heard today, it is more important than ever to remember and learn from the lessons of the past so we do not risk repeating it. If you are interested in making the historical journey this month, here are some resources to get you started:

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The website for the famous museum, located in Washington, D.C., has countless resources for a variety of ages, both print and digital, including videos, interviews, pictures, articles, and documents.

Estelle Laughlin, Holocaust survivor and public speaker. Image Credit: Joshua Polson | The Greenley Tribune

The curators have also helpfully divided their material into themes, including Early Warning Signs, Justice and Accountability, Liberation 1945, Rescue, and American Responses. The Early Warning Signs material is especially appropriate now as the world confronts the Syrian chemical attacks and the fate of thousands of refugees.

On the site’s “Why We Remember the Holocaust” video, survivor Estelle Laughlin says it best: “That’s not enough to curse the darkness of the past. Above all, we have to illuminate the future. And I think that on the Day of Remembrance the most important thing is to remember the humanity that is in all of us to leave the world better for our children and for posterity.”

Rose Under Fire and Lilac Girls

Both of these novels tell the stories of the “Ravensbrück Rabbits,” a group of 74 female Polish political prisoners who were forced to endure heinous medical experiments. These experiments were supposedly to test the efficacy of drugs and the recovery rates of war wounds, but in practice inflicted permanent damage by cutting open the women’s legs and introducing bacteria and foreign objects and also fracturing or removing bone. Another 12 women of different nationalities were also subjected to these types of experiments. Many of the Rabbits were very young—either high school or university students—and needed medical treatment after being freed for decades in order to gain back use of their legs or even just live healthy lives.

Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein is a young adult novel and a companion to her earlier World War II book, Code Name Verity, which depicts a young female spy captured by German forces. Rose Under Fire features the desperate fight for survival by the Rabbits through the eyes of a stranded American female pilot brought to the all-women concentration camp as a political prisoner. There, she bands together with fellow prisoners to keep one another alive, and possibly even escape. The book has been a finalist for numerous awards, winning the Josette Frank Award and the Schneider Family Book Award and being named an honor book of the Golden Kite Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the ABA Indies Choice Award for Young Adult.

 

Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is a historical fiction novel told from the perspectives of three different women living in the U.S., Poland, and Germany. The first is Caroline, a young American woman working at the French consulate in 1939 who sees the increased desperation for visas from the French as Germany takes over Poland. She is based on a real woman who helped the Rabbits receive treatment after the war in the U. S. The second is Kasia, a fictional Rabbit who starts as a high school girl working for the Polish resistance before being captured by the Nazis. She becomes a target of the experiments carried out by real-life German surgeon Herta Oberheuser, who was the only woman to work as a doctor in the camp. As the story continues, their lives become increasingly intertwined and complicated by their experiences. Lilac Girls is unique in attempting to cover a Nazi doctor’s perspective, especially a female doctor. The book has become a New York Times bestseller since its release in 2016 and was dubbed a USA Today “New and Noteworthy” book. The true story of the Rabbits is currently being adapted into a documentary film called Saving the Rabbits of Ravensbrück by producer/director Stacey Fitzgerald, assisted by Lilac Girls author Martha Hall Kelly.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

The railway gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, now the site of a memorial and museum. Image via pexels.com

The name Auschwitz is infamous throughout much of the world, but the website dedicated to recording the history of the largest concentration camp and extermination center of the Holocaust offers tons of information.

Under the history page, visitors can find information about day-to-day life in the camps, the different classifications of prisoners and their treatment, and the systematic killing prisoners, particularly Jews. Each section is brief, but packed with facts of some of the worst crimes perpetuated against human beings. There are also further details broken down by time period, affected population, and category. The education page also has extensive online lessons for students of all ages.

While it is tempting to turn our heads from the truth of the Holocaust, there is still more to learn so we can stop the process of genocide as soon as the familiar signs start to appear. Stay vigilant, stay informed.

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