Candid but sensitive look at horrors of Auschwitz

The horrors of the Holocaust have been extensively documented, and hundreds of lifetimes of research and scholarship have been dedicated to uncovering every possible detail about the Nazi killing machines that were the concentration camps. But because the subject is so hideously shocking and the associated materials — photographs, firsthand testimony, piles of children’s shoes, etc. — so categorically grim, only a limited number of Holocaust-related books have been produced for young readers.

One of the best is Clive Lawton’s “Auschwitz: The Story of a Nazi Death Camp.” This resource for ages 9 to 12 does not mince words or mask dreadful realities. But the organization, format and style of the book are conceived for a younger audience. It might be regarded as an introduction to more in-depth literature on the topic.

The text is especially clear and incisive, in large type and nicely spaced, with copious graphics and pictures, some of which come from the only surviving photo album from Auschwitz.

The well-illustrated and brief two-page sections take the reader through the familiar topics: the rail transports, the horrific selection process, the deceit of the cleansing routine; the hellishness of the gas chambers and crematoria. It also covers exploitations of slave labor; notorious medical experiments; liberation by Soviet forces and the post-Holocaust displaced persons camps, Nuremberg war trials and the Eichmann trial.

How to write for youth about such ghastly matters is an educator’s challenge. Lawton meets it well. The author helped pioneer Holocaust studies for schoolchildren in several countries and wrote the widely used “The Story of the Holocaust.” On one hand, he knows the truth must be told, as gut wrenching as that is. On the other hand, his focus in the writing and captions is on confining the presentation to highlights and leaving the in-depth details to other accounts. The book is both candid and sensitive.

Each section contributes significant information to the overall account, but one of the most sobering is the section titled “Denial,” about the resistance by a small but vocal minority to the appalling evidence found at Auschwitz and other camps. It informs young readers that, amazingly, there are people who argue still that the Holocaust was invented by Jews to gain international sympathy.

While adult readers more familiar with the Auschwitz narrative will find little in the text that is factually new, there is at least one marker of recent controversy. One photograph features an Army Air Force bomber attacking Auschwitz-area factories. This is ironic on double account: first, because the image appears in a section titled “The Russians Are Coming!” Second, the recent revelations about President Franklin Roosevelt prove that our political and military leadership knew about the camps but declined to bomb them, even though U.S. planes flew over the perimeters of Auschwitz’s factories.

The massacre of innocents has, despicably, survived the Nazi era. In the aftermath of 9/11 the entire planet is threatened. We have no greater responsibility than to teach children this history in order to at least try and avoid its repetition. Lawton’s book is a valuable tool in that effort.

Auschwitz: The Story of a Nazi Death Camp,” by Clive A. Lawton (48 pages, Candlewick Press, $17.99).