With so many books about the Holocaust available, it can be daunting to choose which ones to read. From memoirs and historical accounts to new research, findings, and perspectives, nonfiction books provide ways for us to understand the horrors of concentration camps and the courage of the victims when facing unimaginable circumstances. Whether you are interested in specific events, firsthand accounts, or comprehensive studies, these 15 books will get you as close to the history as possible.
Fragments of Isabella
Isabella Leitner was about 10 years older than Anne Frank when the Nazis took her family to Auschwitz in 1944. Her mother and one of her sisters were murdered, leaving Isabella and her three other sisters with only each other to depend on for survival. Her experience and account offers an alternate and unique perspective on the Holocaust. Leitner’s memoir of her experience during the Holocaust has become a classic account and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Escape from Sobibor
Although it was the smallest of the Nazi death camps, Sobibor was also the site of the biggest prisoner escape during the war. More than 300 people escaped into the woods after killing SS officers and guards, and breaking down the barbed wire fences that imprisoned them. Five years after its publication, the book was adapted into a TV movie starring Rutger Hauer and Alan Arkin. Richard Rashke’s journalistic and historical approach to telling this story, by basing it on interviews he conducted with survivors, makes his account both vivid and demonstrative of the courage and strength of the prisoners at Sobibor.
Voyage of the Damned
Just before World War II began, a German ship called the St. Louis departed from Hamburg with 937 Jews attempting to escape Nazi persecution onboard. What they didn’t know was that the voyage was actually a part of a Nazi propaganda ploy to show the world that Germany was not the only country that could not accept Jews, and they were not going to receive any refuge in Cuba. Gordon Thomas, an Edgar Allan Poe Award-winning author and well-respected journalist, tells the completely true story of treachery and suffering that was also adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film.
Jack and Rochelle
An authentic love story with the Holocaust as its backdrop, this memoir begins pre-war with Jack asking Rochelle for a dance, and details their relationship as the horrors of World War II unfolded. Although separated for years, the couple was reunited in a forest after escaping from the Jewish ghettos they’d been forced to move to. Written based on interviews with their son, Lawrence, the book details how they joined a group of Jewish partisans, led by Simcha Zorin, and survived the winter of 1942-43 together.
Were We Our Brothers' Keepers?
If you’ve ever wanted to know how people and the press in America responded to the Holocaust while it was happening, this historical account of the reactions to events like the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, Kristallnacht, and the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz is exactly what you should be reading. Covering six events in total, Rabbi Lookstein provides an honest examination into the flaws and failures of the reactions of American Jews during the Holocaust.
Survival in the Shadows
This account follows the true story of a group of seven German Jews who survived the Holocaust by hiding in Berlin from January 1934 to April 1945. Rather than being eventually discovered or betrayed and sent to a concentration camp, as many stories of living in hiding go, the four members of the Arndt family, along with three others, ended up being rescued by Russian soldiers. Although death from starvation was on the horizon, they endured and, two months after being rescued, two of the couples from the group were wed in a double ceremony.
Written by Israel Gutman, both a survivor of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising and a Holocaust historian, this chronicle disproves the common misconception that Jews were submissive when facing the Nazis. Using his own experience and the diaries and letters of others, Gutman recounts the unimaginable battle between hundreds of starving, poorly armed Jews and a well-equipped, trained Nazi army after a Nazi police commander ordered that the ghetto be burned along with all of its inhabitants. The fearlessness and strength of those who fought in the uprising is undeniable in this record of the largest Jewish revolt during World War II.
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Published in 2015, Timothy Snyder’s New York Times bestselling book re-examines the atrocities of the Holocaust with the 21st Century in its headlights. Based on new sources and lost testimonies from survivors, Snyder’s book reminds the reader of the terror and darkness that Hitler inflicted on Europe and how it may not be as far in the past as we like to think. Snyder insists on the dangers of forgetting the reality of the past and emphasizes how easily humans can behave differently in times of panic and war. His book is both a history and a plea: Don’t dismiss the past—or the future.
In the Garden of Beasts
Named NPR’s best book of the year, as well as a New York Times Notable Book, Larson’s historical account follows William E. Dodd and his family to Berlin in 1933 when he was appointed as America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. As the Dodd family witnesses the escalation of Hitler’s campaigns, including censoring of the press and attacks on Jewish people, Dodd became more aware of the true nature behind Hitler’s regime and how few people back home were realizing it. Larson, the author of The Devil in the White City, captures the atmosphere of Europe during this critical year while also including close-up depictions of major Nazi politicians.
The Diary of a Young Girl
Often the first encounter young students have with the history of the Holocaust, Anne Frank’s diary is a firsthand account of a young Jewish girl’s experience living in hiding with her family from 1942 to 1944. Although German-born, Frank’s family moved to Amsterdam and hid there during the German occupation of the Netherlands. In her diary, she recounts her daily experiences while in hiding—facing hunger and frustration. Frank’s powerful account reveals the experiences of the Holocaust from the unique perspective of a 13-year-old girl living in constant fear and uncertainty.
Why?: Explaining the Holocaust
Written by a professor of Holocaust Studies at Northwestern University, Why? asks the core questions about the Holocaust, including: Why these people? Why this country? Why did it happen the way it did? Hayes answers these questions while clarifying misconceptions and putting his own, well-informed responses forward. Hayes asks why there wasn’t more resistance and why more people didn’t provide aid. Published only a year ago, this comprehensive study addresses the eight most significant questions about the Holocaust with the inclusion of important new insights and perspectives.
Remaining on the New York Times Best Seller List for 80 weeks after being chosen for Oprah’s book club, Wiesel’s memoir details his time in concentration camps—both Auschwitz and Buchenwald—as a teenager. He wrote the original version of Night before Holocaust studies even existed, in the 1950s. Different from Anne Frank’s diary, which did not include her time in a concentration camp, Wiesel’s story depicts the truly horrific and heartbreaking details of his suffering, such as his separation from his mother and sister—whom he never saw again—and his father’s slow, painful death.
The Crime and the Silence
The first part of the title of Bikont’s book, “The Crime,” refers to the 1941 massacre in Jedwabne, a town in northeastern Poland, in which a mob of Catholics burned hundreds (possibly 1,600) Jews alive in a barn. This National Jewish Book Award winner not only takes the reader through the history of the massacre itself, but also addresses “The Silence”: the 60 years it took for the guilty to be held accountable for their actions. It wasn’t until 2004 that it was officially declared that it was the Catholic-Polish residents of Jedwabne who committed this atrocity rather than the Gestapo and Hitler’s forces. This was partially due to the publication of Jan Gross’s book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, another important read, which revealed the untold, true story of the massacre.
Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination
Rather than targeting one specific event or the experience of one individual, Friedlander presents a wide-ranging history for which The New York Times reports he “read virtually every printed source and secondary work...in English, German and French.” Tying in some of the most well-known individuals associated with the Holocaust, like Anne Frank, as well as those who are lesser known, Friedlander uses contemporary diaries and witness statements from postwar trials to create a narrative that truly captures the Holocaust. With the driving idea that it was ultimately Adolf Hitler who is solely to blame for the extermination, this book includes lots of information and complex ideas without getting bogged down or distracted.
Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949
Published just three months ago, Cesarani’s new historical work examines the Holocaust from both a wider and deeper perspective—offering new insights into what the goals of the Nazis were. Cesarani focuses on Nazi military campaigns, as well as the reality of the sexual abuse and violence that women faced while imprisoned in camps. The book includes new information acquired from the opening of Soviet archives, discovery of diaries, reports of victims, and the declassification of Western intelligence service records, all of which prove that history always has more to tell.
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Featured image of "selection" of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Auschwitz-II (Birkenau), Poland during the German occupation, May/June 1944: Wikipedia