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Martin Niemoeller's lesson turned into a parable for kids
on July 18, 2003
I was curious to see how Eve Bunting would turn the Holocaust into an allegory appropriate for young children, but as soon as I started reading "Terrible Things" the inspiration for her story became clear. The Terrible Things first come to the forest for every creature with feathers on its back. The frogs, squirrels, and other animals quickly declare that they do not have feathers, that the forest is better without the birds, and that they are all glad that it was not them that the Terrible Things wanted.
Clearly Eve Bunting takes her text from the famous statement attributed to Martin Niemoeller. If I remember correctly Niemoeller was a pastor. He told about how in Germany the Nazis first came for the Communists, but since he was not a Communist he did not speak up. Then they came for the Jews, but again he did not speak up because he was not a Jew. The same rationale explained his silence when they came for the trade unionists and Catholics. "Then they came for me," Niemoeller said, "and by that time no one was left to speak up."
Niemoeller's words might be the most famous declaration about the Holocaust and its appropriateness for being the basis of an allegory for young children should be self-evident. Bunting is not talking as much about the mass exterminations by the Nazis as she is about the culpability of the ordinary citizens who looked the other way when terrible things happened in Germany. The rhetorical question Bunting asks is "If everybody had stood together at the first sign of evil would this have happened?" If young children do not know the answer to that question before they read "Terrible Things," they certainly will afterwards.
Before she tells the story, which is illustrated by Stephen Gammell with pencil drawings, Bunting provides the moral for her tale. Acknowledging that standing up for what you know is right is not always easy, especially when you are facing someone biggers and stronger than you are, Bunting admits to her readers that it is easier to look the other way, "But if you do, terrible things can happen." The strength of "Terrible Things" is that Bunting makes the lesson Niemoeller shared about the Holocaust easily recognizable and understandable to young children.