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Learning About World War II

April 8, 2008

We tend to do “Unit Studies” in a fairly relaxed way. Our units are usually not designed by me, though I do help the kids choose books, and we read them together. I also read about topics of interest so I can discuss them reasonably intelligently, and offer suggestions, information, and guidance. I guess this is similar to the Collaborative Learning style of unschooling Cindy writes about.

Lately, Sarah and I have been reading about the World War II era and delving into historical novels about Nazi occupied Europe.

We just finished Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, a Newbery Award winning novel about the Danish resistance. I loved this book. I was blown away by the story of Denmark’s resistance to the Nazis, which was new to me. We read more about it here. Sarah didn’t enjoy it as much, as she found the character development and plot simple. This is probably because it was written for younger kids.

Denmark’s story is different from that of many other Nazi-occupied countries in several ways. The German occupation was relatively benign, at least at first. The Nazi government referred to the Danes as “fellow Aryans.” The Danish government was also rewarded for peaceful capitulation by allowing it to continue to function and maintain some autonomy. Denmark had little military to speak of, and King Christian X, wanting to spare his citizens a bloodbath, surrendered peacefully. The resistance was strong from the beginning, however. When German soldiers approached the Danish naval fleet, to commandeer it for their own use, Danish citizens burned the ships.

There is a wonderful story that when the German government started requiring Jewish citizens to wear the yellow Star of David, as a way of singling them out for discrimination, King Christian X wore a yellow star himself and encouraged all his gentile citizens to do the same. There is a children’s book that tells this story. Based on what I’ve read, I think this may be folklore.

When the time came that the German government decided to “relocate” Denmark’s 7,500 Jews, a German official, tried to change his government’s policy. When that failed, he arranged sanctuary for Danish Jews in neutral Sweden, and he warned the Danish government and the Jewish community. Within about 24 hours, Danish citizens had made over 7,000 Jewish people “disappear.” Then Jewish citizens were gradually smuggled to Sweden hidden in fishing boats. The Nazi government realized what must be happening, and they began to capture the refugees by using dogs to search the boats. Swedish scientists devised a solution. Soon each fisherman participating in the resistance received a handkerchief soaked in a solution of cocaine and rabbit’s blood. The blood attracted the dogs, and the cocaine temporarily destroyed their sense of smell. So the exodus to Sweden continued.

As a result, less that 500 of Denmark’s 7,500 Jewish citizens were “relocated” to ghettos or concentration camps. Of those who were captured, over 400 survived. This was partly due to the Danish government’s insistence on continuing to advocate for its Jewish citizens after their “relocation.”

My stepmother loved Denmark ever since she spent a year there on an academic scholarship. I remember her saying, “Denmark is the most civilized country in the world.” I thought about that when I read these words:

Unlike the Jews in other countries who returned to find looted homes, the Danish Jews returned to find their plants watered, their pets fed, and their homes cared for by their friends and neighbors.

Civilized indeed! πŸ™‚

A less happy story, of course, is the history of the occupation and Holocaust in Poland. Here, as in other Eastern European countries, Jewish people were not assimilated into communities as they were in Denmark and other parts of Western Europe. There was little resistance to the systematic murder of Jewish people in cities. Also, entire Jewish villages were annihilated. This story is told in a children’s book titled The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Sarah and I read this book, too. It is an excellent book, and Sarah found it more complex and interesting that Number the Stars. It also much darker and more disturbing.

The story of Jewish villages in Poland is also told in Elie Weisel’s memoir Night. Sarah and I read part of this book, but she chose not to finish it.

A similar story about the Ukraine is told in Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. I haven’t read it yet, but Sarah and I have seen the movie:

Back to Poland: Sarah and read part of Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli.

He also writes contemporary young adult fiction thatSarah really enjoys. Milkweed opens in Warsaw, which has just been bombed by Germany. The main character, a young gypsy orphan, watches events unfold as “Jackboots” take over the city and Jewish businesses are destroyed. So far, the story is incredibly vivid and seems very “real.”

Moving back to Western Europe, Sarah and I also read a novel about the French resistance: The Good Liar by Gregory Maguire.

We read it last summer, and it was an enjoyable read. There is also a lovely picture book about the French resistance that I’d like to read with the kids sometime: The Butterfly by Patricia Polacco. We also read part of The Diary of Anne Frank, which takes place during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands.

Sarah has also been doing a great deal of internet research on the Holocaust. I worry a bit about the emotional effects of her being immersed in this topic, but I don’t interfere. I am really proud of her work.

Right now, she is particularly interested in several groups of Holocaust victims who don’t seem to be discussed often: individuals with disabilities and homosexuals. She has been talking to me about Operation T4 and the persecution of people with physical, developmental, or psychiatric disabilities. She told me the handful of survivors of this mass murder have only recently been discovered. In the decades following the Holocaust, most of the focus was on finding Jewish and Polish survivors. Of course, the story of individuals with disabilities is also one that needs to be told. I wonder whether there is any accessible literature about this?

Sarah’s interest in this topic might lead to some interesting discussions about euthanasia, the Eugenics Movement, and Social Darwinism. (It is amazing how to what extent people can warp and distort sound biological theories into something ugly.) This segues with our Dystopian Literature study.

She has also been talking to me about the fate of homosexual men who were targeted in the Holocaust. They were often singled out for the harshest treatment, and they were even persecuted by fellow concentration camp victims. After the war, when Holocaust survivors were able to come forward and receive public acknowledgement and support, homosexual survivors had to remain in hiding. They were still subject to be arrested for “criminal behavior.” Sarah was shocked at the vicious negative reactions these survivors get, even now. Have we learned nothing about the consequences of hate and bigotry? 😦

In addition to reading about the history of the German occupation of Europe, we’ve been honing our knowledge of European geography with Ten Days in Europe. We also have Ten Days in Africa, and I eventually want to own all the games in this series. Everybody in the family seems to like this game, even four-year-old Trishy, who doesn’t “get” the strategy yet.

If you want your kids to learn some basic world geography and map skills, in a non-schoolish way, these games are a good investment. πŸ™‚ I’m certainly improving my own geography skills. This is a tricky thing, especially since the map has changed so much in my lifetime!

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