Why shouldn’t children’s writers talk about refugees, persecution and genocide? | Books

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Tit was always the mystery of my father’s uncles. My father was an avid fan, adoring jokes – especially Jewish – songs, poems, plays, stories and football, but he showed sadness in the face of the loss. The way he spoke of uncles was, “You know, I had two uncles in France… they were there when the war started; they weren’t there at the end. As I got older, my brother and I pressured him and he said, “They must have died in the camps. Which camps? I asked myself. Where? What did the word even mean? And why France?

Another mystery about our father was that he was American. Although he was born in the United States, he had lived in London since the age of two. The story was that his Polish mother and father – the brother of these French uncles – had separated in Brockton, Massachusetts in 1922, with his mother bringing him and his siblings to London. My father never saw his father again.

The “camps” started when I was a teenager. It came in spurts: a relative was reported at a cousin’s marriage. “His parents put him on a train in Poland and he never saw them again,” we were told. During a trip to Germany, our parents came back upset after a visit to one of these “camps” (we were not allowed to go there). It was Buchenwald. In Mum’s teatime version of the story, if the Red Army hadn’t won in Stalingrad, we would have been killed. Why? Because we were Jews. One night, my father and I stayed up late watching Marcel Ophuls’ films, Le Chagrin et la Pitié, and my father slipped that this was probably how his uncles were taken.

A flight of towns and villages across France… one of Quentin Blake’s illustrations in On the Move. Illustration: Quentin Blake / Walker Books

Beside these previews, there were two names for the uncles: Oscar and Martin Rosen; two professions: a dentist and a watchmaker, and two possible cities of origin: Nancy and Metz.

But that was it.

In the 1980s, I went to the United States to try and sew parts of the extended family together (the meshpukhe in Yiddish), meet my father’s cousins. The visits were great but they did not fill the gaps. Then came a breakthrough: an even more distant American relative left papers in which there were letters from one of the French uncles and one of the Polish aunts. These were desperate appeals for help in 1940 and 1941. These opened doors to places, names and fates that led to an escape from towns and villages across France, to a virtual escape. to Nice, from there to Paris then to the deportation to Auschwitz the “convoys”.

Everything you have read so far in this article has prompted me to write, sometimes prose stories, sometimes poems. Poetry is especially good for writing about the unresolved, the unanswered. Sometimes, however, it can allow you to draw things up according to the schematic of the facts, a sort of list. Facts become the bones of a skeleton, holding together the body of a story. As I wrote in these different ways, people started asking me to tell these stories in schools and colleges. Professor Helen Weinstein of History Works invited me to contribute to the Holocaust remembrance education work she was doing with thousands of students. In another area, I was giving a lecture when a sixth grader “explained” to me that nothing I was describing had really happened. I was face to face with Holocaust denial: an icy moment. I have to put this in a book, I thought.

During this time, working in inner-city schools, I often learned that some of the children I worked with were from refugee families. In my head, the world of my loved ones came into contact with the lives of these children. I looked at myself: I am the son of a migrant whose uncles and aunts were persecuted and killed. By digging through French history, I deciphered government measures, decrees, edicts, lists, arrests, deportations. What did legality and justice mean at that time? What do they mean to these children now? Depending on the age of the student, I thought that my poems could be a means of opening up conversations about refugees, persecution and genocide.

People ask me why write about such things for young people? An answer in my head brings me back to the child who heard his father say: “They must have died in the camps”. This child was full of unanswered questions. Another is that children are not isolated from migration and refugees. Media tells these stories, why shouldn’t a children’s writer use their experience framing things by thinking of a young audience to talk about these topics too?

Children’s books are entering schools. Engaged teachers use books like mine alongside movies, non-fiction, and fiction to help children investigate and understand the Holocaust, persecution, and genocide. The hard truth is, this is all part of who we are. There is a personal twist to it in that there are a good number of kids who know me as Bear Hunt or Chocolate Cake man. If they do, I am part of the fabric of the books they hear or read. Any child of this type meeting On the Move will have a sense of how the Holocaust or any traumatic persecution bleeds through the generations. The funny performance poet may be the same person who spent 40 years researching and writing about a fractured family.

Michael Rosen won the 2021 CLPE Poetry Prize for his collection On the Move, Poems About Migration, illustrated by Quentin Blake and published by Walker Books (£ 9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com.


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