Worlds of Education

“Susi”- a graphic novel about a Jewish girl in disguise - and how to work with the book in primary schools, by Silvia Stieneker (GEW, Germany).

published 28 January 2020 updated 18 February 2020
written by:

I am a primary school teacher in Berlin. In the summer of 2019, I participated in a German-Israeli union seminar for teachers in Tel Aviv that was organized by the German union “Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW)” and the Israeli teachers union “Histadrut ha Morim”. In this seminar, we discussed how we teach our students about the Shoah. Graphic novels and individual reading projects on the theme can be a good approach for younger students with limited reading skills to learn about the Shoah and National Socialism.

Graphic novels about the Shoah

I work in the multicultural district Kreuzberg in Berlin with young children (from ages 11-12, at the time the topic appears in the curriculum), and not all of them are very good at reading. Often, German is their second language, so I to find material and teaching methods in addition to traditional text books.

When it comes to teaching about the Shoah, I think graphic novels are the ideal material for my classes. They allow the students to find an intellectual, but also aesthetic and emotional, access to History. They release their creativity and allow individual approaches depending on the children’s interests and abilities. Since Art Spiegelman’s highly acclaimed and controversial “ Maus”, comics have been published beginning in the 80s. Many graphic novels of individual Shoah-related biographies appeared. For example, Anne Frank’s diary by Ari Folman and David Polonsky or “Auschwitz” by Pascal Croci. There are graphic novels for all ages in book stores. The book I use for my class is “Susi, die Enkelin von Haus Nummer 4 und die Zeit der versteckten Judensterne” (in English: Susi, the grandchild from house number 4 and the time of the hidden yellow stars) by Birgitta Behr, a primary school teacher and artist from Berlin [1]. “Susi” is based on the real story of Susi Collm (*1936) a Jewish girl, who survived the Shoah with her family in Berlin because they were disguised by friends as well as strangers to prevent their deportation.  “Susi” is a powerful example of courage and solidarity in the darkest times of human history. It does not, however, overlook the horrors of the Shoah as it tells the story of Susi’s beloved grandmother, who was deported and executed in the concentration camp in Treblinka. The book does not only tell the family’s story and reflect Susi’s feelings but also provides fact pages about National Socialism (i.e. the Nuremberg Laws) and a basic timeline for the student´s overview.

Individual reading projects

Because all  children in my class have different reading skills, I let them create individual projects about “Susi” (and other graphic novels) at their own pace.

The box project

Children can use an old shoe box and put drawings or quotations from the book on the outside. They fill the inside with items of importance from in the book (like letters, pictures, Susi’s toys, a yellow star, …). They use these objects as they present the story in class to tell the others what they read and what was important to them.

The reading scroll

For this project, you can use an old crisp box, illustrate the outside with motives from the book and fill it with a leporello that can be made by gluing many sheets of paper together. The leporello can include a summary of the book, a Collm family tree, a timeline, pictures, additional information, personal reflections in the form of essays or letters to the protagonists – it really depends on the child’s ideas and wishes.

The lapbook

A lapbook is a file folder that contains a variety of foldable "mini books" and other material that provide detailed information about the topic. You can find instructions and templates to create a lapbook on the internet.

How to prepare the projects

As the students work on their projects by themselves, my job as a teacher is to prepare templates, provide ideas, and furnish additional information. Of course, I am present in class to give them advice and feedback when they need it. I find it very helpful for children to set up a table or a shelf with non-fiction books around the Shoah (suitable for children) so that they can find out more, if they are interested. I also prepare some tasks (for the scroll and the lapbbooks) and declare some of them as required, for example the summary or the family tree. Some of my ideas are : * The big five (the five most important people, items, places, quotations in the book) * Write a personal letter to Susi (or her grandmother) * Create a sign post with the Nuremberg laws * Draw a suitcase. What would you take with you if you had to leave your home like Susi? * Draw a house and its inhabitants. What would they say if a Jewish Family like the Collms knocked at their door asking for help? * Draw a map of Susi’s neighborhood, find out what it looks like today


I have seen students enthusiastic and motivated when they create their own reading projects. For younger children, it is always nice to do something with their hands (draw, paint, cut, fold, glue, design) because it helps them focus on their work. Other students are very interested in looking at their classmates’ projects. They can inspire and help each other. You can invite other classes to an exhibition of the projects so that students can share what they have learned with others. Reading projects have an impact on my role as a teacher. When we work on them, I do not teach in a classical way. Rather, I help, having the role of a counsellor or advisor to my students and empower them to organize themselves and have fun while learning.

[1] Birgitta Behr has made an interesting webpage about Susi Collm, the graphic novel about her, the Susi-exhibition you can see in Berlin, etc.

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