The Whispering Town, one of many picture books set during The Holocaust, is my third set of lesson ideas for using picture books with older readers. The Whispering Town is a great way to introduce students to The Holocaust – not an easy topic to bring up any time, especially the first time students have heard about it.
WHAT IS THE WHISPERING TOWN ABOUT?
It’s 1943, and the Nazis have occupied Denmark. A young girl named Anett is helping her parents hide a Jewish woman and her son, Carl, in a secret room in their cellar. It is clearly not the first time Anett’s family has hidden Jewish refugees, and Anett understands the danger her family takes on when they help the Jews hide. When the Nazis suspect someone on their street is hiding Jews, Anett has an idea to help Carl and his mother escape in the dark of night, and the entire neighborhood gets involved in guiding them to the boat waiting to whisk them away to neutral Sweden.
BEFORE READING THE WHISPERING TOWN ALOUD
The Whispering Town is excellent as a first introduction to The Holocaust for students.
Before reading the book aloud, start with a class discussion of laws.
- How important is it to follow laws?
- What are the consequences of not following the laws?
- Is there ever a time that following the law is the wrong thing to do?
- Would you be willing to break the law to help a stranger?
Another prereading discussion could involve current events:
Mass numbers of refugees from the middle east are seeking asylum in Europe and the USA.
Some Westerners welcome the refugees and want to help; others say the refugees place too great a burden on the countries’ economies.
England recently voted to separate from the European Union, and a major reason for this is the financial burden England bears in supporting the refugees in Germany, Greece, and Italy.
In the USA, controversial former president Donald Trump ran for president on his “build a wall” stance to keep mass numbers of refugees out. Prior to Trump, many were also critical of President Obama’s policies to bring in more refugees at the expense of local economies. Since Trump, President Joe Biden has also faced criticism about his immigration policies at the US-Mexico border.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF INTEREST:
|The swastikas on the Nazi soldiers’ arms. Discuss what this symbol means and how wearing it gave the soldiers power.
|Eyebrows and bags. The Danes’ eyebrows are high on their heads, with worry. They have bags under their eyes, indicating lack of sleep and worry. The Nazi soldiers’s eyebrows are straight across, right above their eyes, making them look fierce and intimidating.
|Objects they carry. The Danes carry objects of peace: the heart-shaped rock, eggs, books, a basket of food, each others’ hands. The Nazi soldiers only carry guns.
COMPARE WITH THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Discuss the Underground Railroad and how normal people and families risked arrest for helping escaped slaves find their way to freedom. How are these families similar to Anett’s family and the people in her town?
INTRODUCE OTHER BOOKS ABOUT TEENS AND HOLOCAUST RESISTANCE
Picture books are a fabulous way to introduce a booktalk topic and generate interest among middle schoolers. The presentation below is downloadable (free) from SlideShare and can be edited to suit your own library collection. I included ten books that represent a variety of reading and maturity levels. I was also careful to include titles that school libraries are likely to already have on their shelves.
(edit – 28 July 2023 – I removed this presentation from SlideShare. I will post a replacement shortly).
THE IMPORTANCE OF SYMBOLS
Watch the video below and discuss the dual meaning of the swastika.
Discussion question for students: Why do you think Hitler chose this symbol as his Nazi party symbol?
THE LEADERSHIP OF KING CHRISTIAN X:
This picture book tells the story of Denmark’s King Christian and his commitment to keep all Danes safe from the Nazis. Many legends rose out of King Christian’s efforts to protect his people. Examine the legend of King Christian X.
Did he really ride his horse among his people every day? Was he really unaccompanied by a bodyguard? Did he really wear the yellow star to underscore that “all Danes are equal”? Did he really threaten to remove the Nazi flag himself?
LEARN ABOUT THE FISHERMEN
In The Whispering Town, Carl and his mother escape to the harbor, where a boat waits to take them to freedom in Sweden. Discuss the fishermen who ferried the Jews across the water and the risks they took. The video below talks about these fishermen and highlights one girl’s story when she was separated from her mother, who escaped on one of the fishing boats.
PAIR WITH NONFICTION:
Much has been written about the Danish resistance during WWII. Some nonfiction resources you might have your students explore:
The title refers to Winston Churchill’s assertion that when Hitler named Denmark its “model protectorate,” Denmark became Hitler’s tame canary.
This book tells stories about normal, peaceful citizens who quietly sabotaged the Nazis with every chance they got.
USING CONTEXT CLUES
Practice using context clues by asking:
- How do you know Anett’s family has hidden Jewish Danes before? (see p. 1-2 of The Whispering Town)
- What kinds of codes do the townspeople use to secretly communicate?
–knocking three times=be quiet; soldiers are here
–“We have new friends”= We are hiding Jews and would appreciate any food or supplies you can give.
–whispering the plan to one another in town to spread the word of Anett’s escape plan
- Do you think Carl and his mother made it to Sweden? Why or why not?
Annemarie’s family takes in her best friend Ellen and conceals Ellen as one of the family.
Through Annemarie’s eyes, readers are able to witness the Danish resistance first-hand.
Check out this teacher’s guide for The Whispering Town from the publisher. The activities are geared for elementary-age readers, but some could be adapted for middle school.