Overwhelmed by Memory

  • Kathy Kacer (Editor)
    We Are Their Voice: Young People Respond to the Holocaust. Second Story Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Leanne Lieberman
    Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Adrienne Kertzer

A collection prompted by Kathy Kacer’s invitation “to write about the Holocaust in a meaningful way,” We Are Their Voice: Young People Respond to the Holocaust contains close to 100 entries that range from letters to survivors (and to Anne Frank), Holocaust diaries and memoirs, book reports, stories based on other works (such as a story inspired by Karen Levine’s Hana’s Suitcase that imagines Hana Brady inside a gas chamber), and meditations on the value of studying the Holocaust. Written by students in grades six, seven, and eight, We Are Their Voice undoubtedly demonstrates that the writers are capable of being moved by and committed to remembering the Holocaust. The collection’s intended audience is not as obvious. Despite how Kacer addresses child readers, the book will likely appeal more to teachers who are uncertain whether children can respond to this history, and who will use this text to model their own classroom practice. Why else does Kacer include feedback from educators who participated in the project?

Kacer longs for a future generation to be the “voice of [Holocaust] history” but she and her consultants appear to value emotional response more than historical accuracy. Several entries present a confused understanding of that history, one where Jews are in hiding pre-Kristallnacht, a hidden child writes haikus “even though they are very uncommon in Germany,” and Auschwitz is mentioned both repeatedly and inaccurately. Contrary to what some of the contributors believe, American soldiers did not liberate Auschwitz, and when the Soviets did, it is doubtful that they helped a survivor contact his American uncle and immigrate.

One of Kacer’s epigraphs is an excerpt from Jack Layton’s final letter. Layton’s inspirational words—”love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear”—might well describe the longing in Leanne Lieberman’s young adult novel, Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust. Lieberman’s protagonist, Lauren Yanofsky, subject to Holocaust panic attacks after she witnesses her grandmother’s grief at the loss of eleven family members, decides to abandon Judaism in a desperate attempt to escape the fear and anger produced by Holocaust memory. Rejecting the books recommended by her Holocaust historian father, she finds herself compulsively reading a book about Josef Mengele until she is so overwhelmed that she burns it and as a result badly injures herself. Asking numerous questions about Holocaust pedagogy even as her novel participates in it, Lieberman accepts that there is no automatic link between factual knowledge and Holocaust understanding: the adolescent males who shock Lauren when they play Nazi war games presumably know about the history of the Holocaust. Kacer’s final chapter advises readers how to move from words to actions. Lieberman’s novel explores the same territory but is far less confident that young people’s encounter with Holocaust history will affect them in the meaningful ways that Kacer desires.

This review “Overwhelmed by Memory” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 163-64.

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