Writing for Children about the Holocaust

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

I was a ‘war baby’ – one of a generation born in Britain during the Second World War, who, however young, were stamped for life with vivid and frightening memories – air raid sirens, running to the shelter, and the unforgettable threatening sound of bombers, and later of low-flying lethal V1 and V2 rockets (the first pilotless missiles used in modern warfare.)

But growing up in London and learning what was then the very recent history of the Second World War and the Holocaust, I realised how lucky I had been, sheltered from far more horrific events. But for an accident of geography, my sister and I would have been among the one and a half million Jewish children who died at the hands of Nazis and Fascists – of hunger and disease in the ghettoes, the box-cars, the concentration camps, and the gas chambers.

Beneath the surface, I think I was always aware of this aspect of my Jewish heritage. Later, as a school librarian and a writer for young people in Ireland, I aimed to attract young readers with stories set in Ireland to which they could relate, and to entice reluctant readers into the pleasures of reading.

But when I learned that Jewish refugee children escaping the Nazis on a Kindertransport had found a haven on Millisle Farm in Northern Ireland, I realised that I could, in a historical novel based closely on fact, try to communicate to young Irish readers something of the dreadful end to which anti-Semitism and racism could lead.

In Faraway Home I tried to engage young Irish readers emotionally, conveying how it felt to live in fear and danger, to be uprooted, separated from family and everything familiar. But I also wanted to show that despite the homesickness and anxiety of the refugee children, they did learn, with the help of others, to make a new life in which there was even room for humour and fun.

17 Martin Street is set in the same period - the ‘Emergency’ – in neutral Dublin. Portobello, known as ‘Little Jerusalem’ - the network of narrow streets near the Grand Canal, was where Jews and Christians lived as neighbours. I spoke to many members of both communities who had vivid and mostly affectionate memories of the colourful vibrant life in and around that area – the appetising food smells, the football and skipping games in the street, the small job of being a ‘Shabbos goy’ (lighting the fire, a task forbidden for orthodox Jews on the Sabbath) – and much more, against a backdrop of hard times, unemployment and wage cuts, and the scourge of TB, rife at the time.

In the story, rumours spread of a German-Jewish girl refugee ‘on the run’ from Irish immigration authorities. Her story is loosely based on recollections, recounted to me and others by the woman herself, years later. I wanted to show readers how the concern of the Martin Street children, both Jewish and Christian, and the decency and kindness of ordinary Irish citizens could help the refugee, Renata, despite the strict government policy of non-admission of Jewish wartime refugees.

The shadow of the Holocaust is evoked also through the fate of members of the girl’s family who fled Nazi Germany only to end up in the notorious Warsaw Ghetto. A brief reference to the Ghetto uprising shows readers that there were, despite impossible odds, courageous attempts at resistance, an aspect of the Holocaust that should also be known and remembered.

In 17 Martin Street too, there is sadness, loss and fear, but also fun and joy and as in Faraway Home, the healing power of friendship between young people from different religions and backgrounds that can transcend the barriers of religion and culture, and give cause for hope even in the midst of the horrors of war.

Marilyn Taylor