Tag Archives: Holocaust

We Didn’t Win to Have You Here: Activism after Victories in Children’s Lit

Yesterday, French voters went to the polls, and much of the rest of the world watched to see if France would go the way of the US and the UK—that is, toward increasingly isolationist, authoritarian, anti-immigrant governments.  In the end, the majority of voters rejected Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right views, electing Emmanuel Macron instead.  Macron is emphatically described as a centrist in just about every news profile of him; an investment banker who worked as economy minister for the socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Macron is pledging to fight “the forces of division that undermine France” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39841707).  But he has never been elected to anything before, so it remains to be seen how—and if—he will be able to do that.  My first reaction to Macron’s victory was relief that France had not elected Le Pen.  My second was think of a children’s book that warned against the dangers of thinking that right-wing extremism could be ended by a change in regime.


Anna, in Kerr’s text, came to love France–but not all the French people loved her “kind”.

The children’s book was one that first taught me, as a child myself, about grey areas in politics.  Holocaust literature in general remains popular with young readers because it is “real” history that ordinary children were involved in—and the good guys and bad guys, especially in the books I read as a child, are obvious.  While YA Holocaust literature was more nuanced about the badness of bad guys, books for the under-twelve set typically allied—well, the allies, with each other.  So the French, Dutch, and British were good, the Germans and Austrians were bad.  (And Jewish people typically were just that—Jewish, not British or German or anything else.)  But Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) presented a more complicated picture—particularly of France.  France, in my nine-year-old understanding of the world, was full of good guys who had unfortunately been “overrun” by the evil Nazis in 1940.  Anna and her family end up in France—though neither as a first nor a last resort—after escaping from Nazi Germany soon after Hitler’s election.  A French newspaper employs Anna’s father, and Anna and her brother Max struggle as refugees to learn the language and fit in—but eventually, “going back to Paris felt more like going home than they would ever have thought possible” (148).  Unfortunately, it does not remain that way.  While many French people help Anna’s family, not all the French are “good guys”.  In fact, their landlady becomes increasingly difficult, eventually lashing out at them by saying, “Hitler knew what he was doing when he got rid of people like you!” (177) and, ominously, “The government should have had more sense than to let you into our country!” (177).  The landlady is French, but sympathizes with the Nazis—not after the fall of France, but several years before it.  My childhood understanding of history fell apart.


In Carlson’s book, it is the children–not the adults or the institutions–that can see beyond race and build community.

But although my sense of history may have undergone some reorganization, I did not lose the belief that children could play a tangible role in bringing about social and cultural change, or that they could learn how to do this through books.  A less historical—though not by any means ahistorical—picture of French anti-racism can be found in an earlier book, written by American Natalie Savage Carlson who lived in Paris for several years.  A Brother for the Orphelines (1959) may seem, like A Bear Called Paddington, to be set outside time in the unpolitical world of childhood.  But Carlson’s book, published in the midst of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against France, concerns the rescue of an Algerian orphan by the French orphelines from abandonment.  The well-intentioned orphelines bring the Algerian boy to a “world where the ceiling is leaking and the walls are falling in” (33) because the government doesn’t care about repairing the orphanage; and even the kind orphanage managers squabble over where the “dark-skinned” baby originated.  The orphelines, on the other hand, focus on community, defending their home and “feeling offended at the way the grown-ups were acting as if the baby were different because he was dark-skinned” (32).  Carlson’s text is not problem-free—there are typical orientalist descriptions of the adult Algerians, for one thing—but the orphelines see the Algerian baby as just another child who needs a safe and happy home, and take it upon themselves to secure one for all of them since they can see that the adults and institutions that surround them are either indifferent or prone to casual racism that would divide the orphans into “us” and “them,” deserving (white) children and undeserving (not-white and “foreign”) children.


Centrist or no, Macron still governs a France that, at least in part, fears the flood at the door.

Kerr and Carlson wrote as adults, and Carlson especially created “ideal” children in her book; but that is not to say that real young people do not understand the consequences of nationalism tied to indifference and racism, whether institutional or individual.  In 1979, the community publisher Centerprise published teenager Savitri Hensman’s book of poems, Flood at the Door, which discusses the racist and anti-immigrant attitudes he faced in 1970s England.  One of these poems, “World War Two,” has echoes of the themes found in both Carlson’s and Kerr’s books.  Hensman writes, “‘We didn’t win to have you here,’/ You say, and flaunt the Union Jack” (8).  The separation between “we” and “you” is a false dichotomy, Hensman argues, when he writes in the next line, “But by your side we fought” (8).  A false dichotomy with real consequences; the poem that follows is about an Asian being stabbed and kicked to death by racists who tell him “to go back” (9) where he came from.  The police do nothing.

While Macron won, Le Pen still received a third of the votes cast.  And this means that while Macron argued that “France” won the election, there is another France that does not agree.  The France of Le Pen, like the right-wing extremist element in America or Britain, is not powerless to affect the day-to-day lives, or indeed the laws and policies, governing ordinary people in France.  That is why activists and children’s authors must continue to fight injustice no matter who is in power—because we didn’t win to have racists here.

Je Suis Juif, Musulman, Français: The Intertwined History of Muslims, Jews, and the French

The attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and on a Jewish grocery store last week in Paris revealed the racial and religious tensions in France to many people across the world.  The country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and the third largest Jewish population in the world has struggled for some time with the problems that arise from the diverse nature of their population.  Some (maybe most) of these are problems that have (France’s former) colonialism at its core; many of the members of Muslim and Jewish communities in France, for example, come from North African countries where France was once the colonial ruler, such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.  Often times these communities are isolated in some way from the rest of France (the phrase “disaffected Algerian youths” comes up a lot in reports out of Paris, especially when poverty and unemployment is high or football matches go wrong).  The BBC, CNN and the New York Times have also all recently published stories about French Jews (“disaffected Algerian youths” are always Muslims; Jewish communities are rarely referred to by their national origin) facing increasing anti-Semitic attacks and wanting to emigrate from France to Israel in increasing numbers.

Religious and racial tensions are not new to France (or, I might add, to most other former imperial powers).  But the opposite attitude of tolerance and equality are not new to France either.  The French people chanting “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis juif” in large numbers and the Muslim employee of the kosher grocery store who protected a group of several hostages during last week’s incident are the other, better side of France’s attitude toward minority groups within its borders.  However, it is typical that it took a tragic event to showcase these better angels.  Historically, it took the Dreyfus Affair, in which the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of selling state secrets, to help bring about the 1905 law separating church and state affairs in France; and it took the death of 30,000 Muslim North African soldiers at the Battle of Verdun during World War I to get the French government to finance the construction of Paris’s Grande Mosquée in 1926.  Both these events are prelude to another tragedy—and triumph—of French racial and religious relations discussed in a children’s book by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix, The Grand Mosque of Paris (Holiday House: 2009).

Another moment when French Muslims and Jews were united.

Another moment when French Muslims and Jews were united.

The subtitle of the book, “A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust,” struck me for a couple of reasons.  The first was that it occurred to me I had never considered the plight of Muslims in Europe during the Second World War.  The second was that it made me wonder how and why Muslims escaped the wrath of Nazism (at least enough that they could be rescuing Jewish people).  After all, one of the purported reasons for Nazis to imprison and murder Jews (not to mention other groups, including Catholics, communists and homosexuals) was that they did not believe in (the Nazi version of) Christianity and Christian values.

The answer to both “how did the Muslims escape victimization by the Nazis?” and “how did they manage to hide Jewish people?” are explained, or at least addressed, in Ruelle and DeSaix’s book—and, looked at from a certain angle, “colonialism” could be the answer to both questions.

Hitler was certainly no supporter of Islam.  He once referred to the entire population of the Middle East as “half-apes” (see the Projet Aladin website, http://www.projetaladin.org/holocaust/en/40-questions-40-answers/the-nazis-the-holocaust-and-muslims.html, for more on the Holocaust and Muslims).  But Hitler was, in the end, a pragmatist, and he saw cultivation of a relationship between his Nazi government and the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa as one path to defeating the Allied Powers, particularly Britain and France (who at the beginning of World War II were still heavily invested in and reliant on their colonial “possessions” in the region).  To placate Arab leaders such as Ibn Saud and Mufti Haj Amin, Hitler did not round up Muslims as he did other “non-Christian” groups.

In France at the start of World War II, the Muslim population was almost exclusively North African.  The Jewish population was more mixed, thanks to anti-Semitic attitudes in Russia and Eastern Europe, but a number of the Jews in Paris were part of the Algerian community.  Algerians had been declared French citizens in the Crémieux Decree of 1870, and many had migrated to the metropole.  It was these Jews, largely, that were hidden by the Parisian Muslim community.

The Grand Mosque of Paris certainly simplifies both these histories.  Regarding the Nazi tolerance of Muslims, Ruelle and DeSaix state, “The Nazis were reluctant to target Muslims.  They feared a Muslim uprising in North Africa, where they were already fighting the Allies” (18).  This statement sidesteps the anti-Semitic attitudes of some of the Arab leaders who Hitler was courting.  But to admit to Arab sympathy with Hitler’s anti-Jewish aims would complicate the book’s focus on Muslim-Jewish harmony. The authors spend a bit more time on the relationship between Paris Jewish and Muslim communities, emphasizing the unity and connections within the groups.  “Jewish or Muslim, the people of North Africa lived as neighbors and shared similar cultures.  Through the centuries, they referred to each other as brothers.  They also looked very much alike” (12).  In other words, it was the lack of what Nazis believed to be typical Jewish “racial” features that allowed North African Muslims to save North African Jews.  Ruelle and DeSaix add that “only people who . . . could pass as North African Muslims could stay at the mosque for more than a few days” (16).  The indirectly-offered message of The Grand Mosque of Paris is that the Muslim community succeeded in rescuing Jews by using the German racial (and racist) “theories” against them. During a time when it was dangerous to be Jewish, French Muslims helped at least a few of them to say, “Je suis musulman” instead.