Reading games in Auschwitz: Play in holocaust youth literature

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Near the end of Jane Yolen's young adult Holocaust novel Briar Rose (1992), a young Polish woman says to an older storyteller, “You like to play games” (229). The statement is not a compliment; it is an accusation, a charge of callous impropriety and blithe indifference toward the sober facts of the Holocaust. Yolen's novel is about excavating personal histories from the ruins of the genocide, and play appears to have no role in such inquiries. But the text's American protagonist, whose family history the storyteller has just recounted, swiftly reverses the charge: “I think you like to play games, too,” she says with some pique to the young Pole, a friend who helps the heroine unearth her complicated ancestry. The penchant for play in this context may be shameful, but it is something the characters share, a common predilection that neither figure can resist. However, the Polish friend parries the protagonist's reproach. She offers justification for the informed use of play in rehearsing tragic history: “If one does not play games,” she says, “then there is too much to weep about” (230). For the chastened individual who plays with sensitivity tinged with historical consciousness, games can be a vital prophylactic against the dolorous tears brought on by too much knowledge of the past. We play so as to avoid crying. In this particular view, the ludic power of play inures one just enough to face the traumatic past without succumbing to a threnody of despair. This passage points to a surprising theme in the corpus of juvenile literature on the Holocaust: many of its texts focus, incongruously, on play. Games and play1 appear with astonishing frequency in works of fiction about the Holocaust for older children and young adolescents. My sample draws on post-Holocaust fiction written for readers aged nine through fourteen, the late elementary school and junior high school grades in which texts about the event are frequently taught. Throughout this body of work, games and play serve as the linchpin either for surviving the genocide or for transmitting [End Page 360] its memory to future generations. The phenomenon begs for closer scrutiny. Such examination contributes to pioneering research by Hamida Bosmajian, Adrienne Kertzer, Kenneth B. Kidd, Anastasia Ulanowicz, and Sue Vice on how the Holocaust is presented in children's literature; it also offers a counterpart to work on representations of play in other oppressive contexts, such as Joyce Kelley's recent study of children's play in plantation novels. This essay asks why play figures so prominently in children's and young adult Holocaust literature. What might the prevalence of games in such fiction signify to readers in late childhood or early adolescence? More urgently, how can play and genocide cohere? Play would appear, on first read, to be the moral antithesis of the Holocaust. How can works like Yolen's make room both for playing games and reading texts about the Nazi massacre? In trying to answer these questions and understand the ludic leitmotif in youth Holocaust literature, one might initially hypothesize that games and play attenuate the horror of the Holocaust by making atrocity palatable (or perhaps playable) for children. As the character in the passage from Briar Rose suggests, without play, “there is too much to weep about.” Play may be recruited, then, to diffuse tension by offering a ludic and therefore more pleasurable veneer to traumatic experience. By refracting trauma through pleasure, play makes unpleasant experience more suitable and salutary for youngsters.2 This seems to be the classic psychoanalytic model of play in Freud's fort-da game from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, an example that ranks among the most influential treatments of play in modern literature. In that case, a small child invents a game to cope with his anxiety during his mother's absences. Freud theorizes that the child's game of discarding and retrieving a spool serves as anticipatory and soothing imitation of the mother's joyful return. Play allows the child to cope with loss by reenacting it as enjoyable sport. Thus, in Freud's opinion, games repeat painful...
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)360-380
Number of pages21
JournalLion and the Unicorn
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2014


Dive into the research topics of 'Reading games in Auschwitz: Play in holocaust youth literature'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this