Book of the Month: Saving Hanno

Frankfurt in November 1938 is not a safe place for 8-year-old Rudi, or for anyone else in his community. Rudi is Jewish. Rudi’s parents send him to England with his older sister Lotte on one of the infamous Kindertransport trains. Rudi saves his little dog, Hanno, by having him smuggled out of Germany to London. Just as Rudi and Hanno start to settle into their new life in a foreign country and make friends, Britain declares war on Germany. Both boy and dog face new threats to their safety. People are having their pets put down as food rationing is introduced. Can Rudi and his new friends save Hanno a second time?

This is a holocaust story with a difference. Told entirely from a child’s perspective, Saving Hanno introduces children aged 7 years and above to the Second World War in a way they can immediately relate to. Illustrator Karin Littlewood’s artwork is deceptively simple – subtle details in her illustrations capture the powerful emotion of both dark and happier events in Rudi’s life, while holding onto a sense of childhood innocence.

Rudi’s childhood has been quite normal up until the story’s events. His innocence makes it hard for him to recognise the growing danger around him, hinted at by the gradual erosion of his family’s freedoms – his sister Lotte’s youth group is banned, Hitler Youth members hang around the school gates to pick on Jewish children, and Rudi has to wear a yellow star sewn on his jacket.

There are some nail-biting moments. Even in England, Rudi doesn’t feel completely safe. In Germany he kept quiet about being Jewish. In England he keeps quiet about being German. In his notebook he writes, “Don’t speak German in the street or the police will arrest you.” Every chance he gets, Rudi makes an effort to show he agrees with British views, to prove that “I’m not a Nazi”. 

Rudi’s focus on protecting his pet helps lead young readers gently through more difficult subject matter, such as racism and war. But Rudi has worries just like any child reading his story might have. As well as secretly craving his big sister’s approval, he feels the need to belong. He learns English customs but worries about losing his own culture, reminding himself in his trusty notebook to “Keep practising the Hebrew prayers so you don’t forget them.”

This is a story about loss – of a way of life, people, home and traditions. It’s also a story about resilience, adaptation, tolerance and hope. Themes still relevant today for refugee children and their families… and for anyone starting a new life in a strange place.

Saving Hanno

Classroom Approaches

Saving Hanno introduces KS2 pupils to some of the themes of the Second World War, while presenting the war from the perspective of children on both sides – in Germany and in England. Examine how children in both countries faced danger.

One particularly memorable scene is the moment Rudi’s train passes the German border into Holland, and he and the other Jewish kids tear off the yellow stars the Nazis forced them to wear and stamp on them. The enforced wearing of the yellow star is a good starting point for discussing persecution and intolerance. You could link this with the thousands of refugee children in Europe today who have been sent away from home alone to save their lives.

The story offers opportunities to focus on details of life in Britain during the war, for example German air raids on London and the need for domestic air raid shelters, gas masks and blackouts, food rationing and the evacuation of children to the countryside.

Lotte assures him there are no Nazis to pick on Jews in England, but another sort of social exclusion is alive and well there, as his English foster mother demonstrates: “I’d rather you didn’t play with that boy, Rudi dear. He comes from a very poor home, and you could catch lice and all sorts of diseases from him.” Examine the different reasons why people might be excluded by others or regarded with suspicion, including cultural differences.

Children like Rudi were often the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust – the author has left unanswered whether Rudi’s parents survive the war. Use this as an opening for pupils to come up with alternative endings to his story.

Rudi’s sister Lotte gets long letters from their parents, who are still trapped in Germany. Ask pupils to write letters to Rudi from his Papa or Mutti, and Rudi’s reply to his parents.

Don’t miss the Glossary of Jewish traditions at the end of the book, which can be used to open discussion about pupils’ own faiths or community traditions.