‘Live. And remember’: History, memory and storytelling in young adult holocaust fiction

November, 2019

Source: Literature & History 2019, Vol. 28(2) 156–174 


Young adult fiction has emerged as a crucial pedagogical tool for Holocaust education. According to scholars and writers, it promotes empathy and also encourages the readers to become a part of the process of remembering. However, this field of storytelling also grapples with the dilemma of traumatic subject matter and its suitability for young readers. The humanist conventions of young adult fiction are often in conflict with the bleak and horrifying core of Holocaust literature. Young adult novelists have tried to deal with these problematic aspects by using multiple narrative strategies to integrate the memories of genocide and human rights abuse with the project of growth and socialisation that lies at the heart of young adult literature. This paper examines the narrative strategies that make young adult fiction an apt bearer and preserver of the traumatic past. Specifically, these strategies involve fantastical modes of storytelling, liminality and witness testimonies told to the second- and third-generation listeners. These strategies modify the humanist resolution of young adult narratives by integrating growth with collective responsibility.

In his essay on the Beit Hashoah Musuem of Tolerance, Theodore O. Prosise studies the representational strategies of the museum invoking liminality in its structure designed to encourage audience engagement (Prosise, 2013). It enables the preservation of the history at the same time as emphasizing personal responsibility by building empathy and tolerance. Young adult fiction accomplishes a similar task. It ends with the return of the hero from the heroic quest, the journey that integrates the trauma of history with the process of coming-of-age. The optimism and hope that characterize young adult fantasy is tentative in Holocaust fiction, underscored by the awareness that ‘Happy-ever-after is a fairy tale notion, not history. ‘I know of no woman who escaped from Chelmno alive’ (Yolen). The intent of young adult fiction is not objective realism, but the preservation of the past by intertwining it with the narrative of present and future. Framed within the structural formulas of fantasy – the fairy tales, the heroic quest, and the intergenerational storytelling – the trajectory of the Holocaust fiction for young readers subverts the tropes of the very formula that it uses to tell the story. It narrativises the past in ways that target the young readers as listeners and bearers of memory, the radical other of the survivor-teller whose trauma finds an expression – howsoever incoherent – only in a circle of willing listeners. As the bearer of trauma and memories passed from generation to generation, young adult Holocaust fiction becomes the repository of collective memories as well as a bridge that links the past with growth into the future. Declaration of Conflicting Interest



T. O. Prosise, ‘Prejudiced, Historical Witness, and Responsible: Collective Memory and Liminality in the Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance’, Communication Quarterly, 51:3(2013): 357.

Yolen, Briar Rose, p. 202

Updated: Dec. 11, 2019