For the JC Sep 3 2020
A long time ago, there was a little wooden house by a lake”. So begins Thomas Harding’s magical re-telling of his 2015 adult non-fiction book, The House By The Lake, which was shortlisted for the Costa Prize.
With exquisite illustrations by the renowned children’s artist Britta Teckentrup, this is a children’s book with a difference — because it introduces the darkest of subjects to children as young as its publisher’s recommended age of six. The book looks at the Holocaust and the Iron Curtain between the West and the Communist world, stories told through the ownership of the house.
Children’s books are a notoriously difficult — and, occasionally, thankless — market to crack. So why did Harding, an established writer of award-winning biographies (including Legacy and Hanns and Rudolf), want to write a children’s book?
It goes as far back as his student days, when he had a summer job in the children’s bookshop in Muswell Hill, north London. In the less busy afternoons, Harding would examine much of the stock, fascinated with old and new favourites.
Later, with a young family, he spent hours “making up stories” for the delight of his children. So with the structure of The House By The Lake already in place, he thought long and hard about how to turn it into a story palatable for children.
A friend, successful children’s writer Nicola Davies, encouraged him, he says, urging him “you just have to find a way”. Some people might not think this was the greatest advice, but Harding says it helped him, giving him confidence.
And the other thing that helped him was a very different project, the turning of his acclaimed “non-fiction thriller”, Hanns and Rudolf, into a screenplay. “One of the people I was working with said, Thomas, you have to concentrate on the emotional essence of the story”.
He applied this rather more practical advice to crafting The House By The Lake for children, stripping out the necessary historical context from the adult version and telling the story of his grandmother’s childhood summer home outside Berlin in a simple, easily comprehensible format.
“When you are talking about how [his Jewish family] were exposed to the Gestapo, or Aryanisation and the rise of National Socialism, which are complicated concepts, when you boil it down, it’s about someone taking something from you. And kids can understand that. Or when the Nazis come to the door, and my family were rendered stateless and forced to flee the country — that, again, is about people bullying you and making you do something you don’t want to do”.
Harding believes that parents and teachers can use the book as an opportunity to explain the history; while at a basic level, children of a young age can still gain a lot from it, learning about good and bad people, and the ability of the house to shelter five different families throughout 100 years.
The house itself has gone though many changes and convulsions since it was built in 1927 by Harding’s great grandfather, Dr Alfred Alexander, a summer escape for his wife Henny and their four children.
In 1936 the house was seized by the Gestapo and the Alexanders fled to London. A year later it was bought from the Gestapo by music publisher, Will Meisel, and his film-star wife. Their two sons were members of the Hitler Youth; in 1944 this family fled to Austria and did not return to Berlin until after the war.
From Austria, Meisel invited his creative director Hanns Hartmann and his Jewish wife Ottilie to use the house; and they stayed until Soviet forces arrived in April 1945. Another family, the Fuhrmanns, briefly lived there; and then in 1958 the house was rented by an East German, Wolfgang Kuhne, a street cleaner who also spied on his neighbours for the Stasi, the East German secret police.
When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, a portion of it ran between the house and the lake, blocking access for nearly 30 years.
Thomas Harding went to visit the house in 2013 and found it in desolate condition, empty and abandoned. He, his family and the local community have now restored the Alexander Haus, which has become a centre for education and reconciliation, with visitors able to tour the building and learn the stories of its various residents.
Introducing really young children to the issue of the Holocaust is a complicated issue. One of the most successful attempts is the late Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, written in 1971 as a fictionalised account of her own family’s escape from Germany.
Another book which has received great praise is Saving Hanno, by London writer Miriam Halahmy. Aimed at seven-to-11-year-olds, it’s a spin-off from her earlier success, The Emergency Zoo, which is for slightly older readers.
An illustration by Karin Littlewood from Saving Hanno by Miriam Halahmy
An illustration by Karin Littlewood from Saving Hanno by Miriam Halahmy
Saving Hanno was first published in America in 2019 and will be published in Britain next year to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day. Halahmy says “it’s about a boy who leaves Germany on the Kindertransport, and has to save his dog three times. It was a learning curve for me, as well — I didn’t think I was writing about the Holocaust, in fact, because it was about the Kindertransport”.
But Miriam Halahmy was approached by young educators who told her there weren’t many books for the younger age group which spoke about the Holocaust. Saving Hanno “ticked a lot of boxes”, they said.
The Emergency Zoo, as is evident from its title, also has animals at its core and is based on the true story of 750,000 pets which were put down in the UK at the outbreak of war. In it, Miriam Halahmy weaves the story of a Jewish brother and sister who did, in real life, write to a British animal charity to ask for help in bringing their dog with them, as they had places on the Kindertransport. Because this book is aimed at older readers, Ms Halahmy includes some real-life horror: the central figures, the brother and sister, receive letters from their parents — and one letter tells of how their father was forced, with a group of other Jewish men, to “cut a football field with their teeth”.
It’s a brutal story, she says, “but I wanted to put it in the book to show what was happening to the Jews and why they were leaving. When I was asked to write about Rudi and his dog Hanno, which is for much younger children, I knew I couldn’t put that kind of story in. But we meet Rudi after Kristallnacht and find out what happens when he goes to school, met at the school gates by bigger boys in Hitler Youth outfits and a new teacher who is a Nazi and who hits the children on their bare legs with a ruler, and makes them sit at the back of the class. So we do see some of the brutality”.
As a children’s author, Miriam Halahmy has taken part in panel events at Beth Shalom, the Holocaust education centre near Nottingham. Its chair, Henry Grunwald QC, says that former MP John Mann, now Lord Mann, and a leader in combating antisemitism, is a strong believer in the use of buildings to teach history — so he is attracted to Thomas Harding’s use of the Alexander Haus, to tell a difficult story to children.
“We feel at Beth Shalom that you can begin to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to primary school children, aged nine or 10,” Grunwald says.
Beth Shalom features a groundbreaking installation, said to be the only one in Europe, called “The Journey”, aimed at that age group. “It’s the story of a German Jewish boy, Leo, aged nine —it’s based on the real-life stories of four or five Kindertransport people.”
The story — now available as an app for iPads, too — consists of five rooms in which children can follow the life of the boy and his family, leading up to Kristallnacht, its aftermath, and going on the train with the other Kinder.
“It doesn’t deal with the horrors of the Holocaust,” says Grunwald, “because you can’t do that with children of that age. But it does raise questions about isolation, exclusion, and bullying”.
Beth Shalom developed the digitised version of “The Journey” with the help of the Association of Jewish Refugees and a substantial government grant, signalling, Grunwald believes, a shift in emphasis in Holocaust education in order to teach children “in an age-appropriate manner. We think this should go to every primary school in the country.”
Madelyn Travis is chair of the content advisory committee for PJ Library, a Jewish engagement and literacy programme for children and their families. She says that there have been a number of books which touch on the Holocaust, and in the 1970s the children’s writer Eric Kimmel, developed a classification method for these books. “For the very youngest children, probably six or seven years old, you would have books about refugees, resistance, then books about ghettoes and camps for much older children.
“There are also allegorical works which don’t mention the Holocaust directly. There’s a book called Terrible Things from around 1980 which basically has the Terrible Things come to the forest and take away the animals, one species at a time, and the people that are left turn a blind eye. With the use of animals, you can address broader themes for very young children.”
It’s only relatively recently, says Travis, that parents have wanted childhood to be “protected and innocent”, pointing out that 19th century Grimm’s fairy tales are full of violence and horror.
“Children don’t really like reading picture books after around the age of eight”, she says, “but we are seeing more picture books about the Holocaust, and the point is that they are made for parents and children to read together. It’s a potential education opportunity, and the parent is there to mitigate any upset”.
She very much likes Thomas Harding’s book. “The text is simple, gentle and sensitive, and the colour tones [of the pictures] are mostly sombre, to set the mood. The Nazis are “angry men”, which feels age-appropriate to me. It seems a great book for children and parents to share”.
The House By The Lake: the story of a home and a hundred years of history, is published by Walker Books this week