Today, January 27, marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As with any historical event that you yourself did not bear witness to, it’s all too easy to think of the Holocaust in terms of history lectures. But these 10 books provide personal perspectives into the realities of the Holocaust and will all leave you more rattled and informed than a textbook ever could.
1. Maus by Art Spiegelman
American cartoonist Spiegelman interviewed his father about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor; thus, this graphic novel was born. One of the boldest choices and most salient features of the book is that it uses different animals to represent humans: Germans as cats, Jews as mice, and non-Jewish Poles as pigs. With it, Spiegelman has managed to create an innovative book without negating the seriousness of the events it depicts.
2. An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin by Gad Beck
To survive the Holocaust at all is an incredible feat; to survive it as a homosexual teen, however, is nearly unbelievable. Beck’s story is set against a backdrop of horror yet is filled with infinite amounts of love and hope. His memoir provides a look at a gay man’s coming of age in Nazi Berlin, showing how the human spirit can triumph over bigotry and violence.
3. A Scrap of Time and Other Stories by Ida Fink
Fink’s collection of short stories offer an intimate look into the lives of families during the Holocaust, providing a perspective from survivors, witnesses and victims in the villages of occupied Poland. Fink is a Polish Holocaust survivor and a master of the written word, diving head first into the horrors and tragedies that she and those she loved were forced to face. These are stories of suffering, hope, resistance and, most of all, remembering.
4. The Journal of Helene Berr by Helene Berr
If you were assigned to read a Holocaust diary in school, it was most likely Anne Frank’s. Frank provided an undeniably important and touching account, and it is only complemented by Berr's. The journal begins on April 7, 1942, when Berr was a 21-year-old student of English literature at the Sorbonne. She writes about the issues that consume her life: friends, studies, boys and the growing impact of France’s Nazi occupiers. Berr’s account is vivid, offering testament to her bravery. She writes honestly about the first day she had to wear a yellow star on her coat, saying, “I held my head high and looked people so straight in the eye they turned away. But it’s hard.” The final entry is so chilling that you’ll find yourself thinking about it for days to come.
5. The Last Jew of Treblinka: A Memoir by Chil Rajchman
Rajchman was one the of lone survivors of the Treblinka extermination camp, and he provides a devastating account of his experience in this memoir. The book was originally written in Yiddish in 1945, only three years after Rachman was sent to Treblinka at the age of 28. It details his escape, as well as the brutal attacks he was victim to. Rajchman’s justifiable rage explodes from each page.
6. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
This collection of short stories was originally titled Farewell to Maria, a seemingly strange title for a Holocaust book until you learn Borowski’s history: His girlfriend, Maria, was captured and sent to a concentration camp, and his love for her was so extreme that he was arrested in an attempt to follow her to the same camp; he was, however, sent to Auschwitz instead. He survived and lived to write This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, a surprisingly satirical collection of what life is like in a Nazi concentration camp.
7. Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue by Kathryn J. Atwood
This collection chronicles 26 engaging stories of brave women from Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain and the United States. Atwood organizes the dense material in a digestible manner, laying out the contextual history of the war and each nation’s role before diving into the individual stories of her subjects.
8. Things We Couldn't Say by Diet Eman
It’s rare that “love story” and “Holocaust story” are in the same sentence, but this book manages to combine the two with the incredible real-life story of Diet Eman and Hein Sietsma. The two risked their life and love to rescue Dutch Jews in occupied Holland during World War II. A third-person account would certainly be powerful, but what make this a must-read is that it’s told from Eman’s first-person perspective, capturing the events of her bravery with incredible detail.
9. Boy 30529 by Felix Weinberg
Weinberg was only 12 when he was forced into a concentration camp in 1939, yet he survived five different concentration camps, including Auschwitz and the Death March from Blechhammer in 1945, reuniting with his father in Britain only after being liberated at Buchenwald. Weinberg’s memoir is a powerful story, but it’s also a meditation on memory or how we try to hold on to the ineffable recollections that slip through our fingertips and fade over time.
10. Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz by Rena Kornreich Gelissen
This is one of the few Holocaust memoirs that details the lives of women in concentration camps. It tells the story of Rena Kornreich, who went to great lengths to keep her promise to her mother that she would protect her sister Danka. It’s a story of the bonds between family and a reminder of what we can risk and endure for those we love.
The genre of memoir often gets poked fun at, and in a time where every “struggling” 20-something seems to have one, that may make sense. Still, it’s good to remember what an important and profound medium the memoir can be. It allows victims to have a voice and to take ownership over their own story. After all, these memoirs will act as the voice of the Holocaust when the victims are no longer with us and able to tell us their stories first-hand.
Did we miss a Holocaust novel or memoir that you find particularly essential? Let us know in the comments below.