Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust is an astonishing book. Some stories demand to be told and, as hard as the telling might be, the events of the Holocaust is one of them.
But the thing about stories is that listening to them is an active process, one that generates questions, and when these questions concern an issue with such dark and towering profundity as the Holocaust, the answers must themselves possess a rare authority. That is where this book comes in.
Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust, which has been shortlisted for the UKLA’s non-fiction award, was written by Hedi Fried, a survivor of the genocide. In 1944, at the age of 19, she was taken from her home in Sighet, Romania, and transported to the dark gates of Auschwitz. Then followed a series of labour camps before she was finally liberated from Bergen-Belsen. After the war, she settled and lived a life in Sweden and has spent the last three decades talking about her experiences, particularly to young people.
The book is split into 44 short sections, each answering a question she has faced at one of her lectures. The questions are ordered according to a rough chronology, with those about her life before the war followed by those that probe her arrival at, then life in, then liberation from the camps. The view then turns to her new life in Sweden, before ending with Fried’s eyes firmly fixed on the future.
The first aspect of the book that hits you is the juxtaposition of the intense emotions and experiences Fried is recounting, and the calm, measured style in which she does it. Perhaps it is because of this detached clarity, that she can allow herself to be so vulnerable. She shies away from nothing, no revelation and certainly no question. She makes clear that she sees no inquiry as off-limits, but some of the questions (‘What was the best thing [about being in the camps]’ and ‘Were you raped?’ especially) feel almost insulting for the reader to ask. Yet Fried answers them all with the same openness, understanding and dignity that she does any other.
However, beneath this composure, the heat of her enduring trauma can still be felt. She says her career writing and talking about her experiences have helped her process them. But processing is not eradicating, and she admits that even just the bark of a dog can have her ‘back in the camp instantaneously’.
It is these lasting impacts, the impossibility for people to escape the shadow of what was wrought on them, that is perhaps the saddest note rung by this book. The emotional turmoil that saw her and her sister, as old women, return to their hometown for the first time since being stolen away and feeling ‘like children from a storybook who had left home without permission and were not getting a taste of the consequences’. Or how the constant starvation of prisoners has led to survivors suffering from eating disorders or ‘keeping an overstocked fridge’. The line might seem flippant, but the psychological scars it reveals are anything but.
The book draws to its close looking not to the past but the future. Fried strikes neither an optimistic nor a pessimistic tone but a knowing one, pointing at Europe’s resurgent right-wing, and the distrust that both fuels and is fuelled by it, as signs that must be noticed and acted upon.
It is against the canvas of this warning that the value of the book becomes apparent. More than ever, children need to know the story of the Holocaust, as hard as it may be to tell. But, as we know, stories generate questions, and Fried admits that we are edging towards the days when there will be no one with first-hand experience left to answer them.
This book is a vital time capsule because, while facts can answer questions, only the emotion of recounted experience can satisfy and, more importantly, teach from them. Fried writes: ‘If knowledge only addresses the mind, it is easily forgotten. It must also reach the heart, where it can awaken emotional learning.’
The lessons of the Holocaust are ones that cannot be forgotten, that have to reach, be planted and grow in the heart of each generation and Fried identifies schools as the place where these seeds are most fruitfully sewn.
But how can a book with this intensity and emotional weight be used in schools, especially primaries? Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust is not a text to sit in a book corner or to be handed over to a child. Not only because it presupposes a level of knowledge about what the Holocaust was but also because it is too intense an experience to read more than a question or two at a time – indeed, it seems almost disrespectful to skim too far or too fast in one go.
However, it can still hold a valuable place within a curriculum and could be a rich resource for an UKS2 teacher delivering a unit around the Holocaust or World War Two. In this instance, the book could be used to answer questions the children come up with using first-hand stories, rather than sterile, decontextualised facts.
After all, stories may generate questions, but they also provide the best answers.
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