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The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a popular book-club read. Books about World War 2 and the Holocaust have been published regularly since the end of the war, and there is a large selection. Read on.
Why are they worth reading?
These books are heavy and often depressing, so proceed with caution. While I agree with the maxim about being doomed to repeat history that isn’t known (paraphrased from a quote attributed to George Santayana), what brings me back to these books is the struggle with knowing what is right, when it is serious (not something that will go away on its own), and having the courage to act on it.
The people portrayed here, who are nearly all real, survived or didn’t at least in part because of the choices they made, the memory of which they carried the rest of their lives, and in some cases, into generations.
When I read these books, I ask myself: What would I do?
Note: Except for the two books at the end of this post and Anne Frank, these books are very much for adults or older teens. As an educator, I have seen this subject introduced too early, and it is just too much for younger kids.
Proceed with caution.
If you follow Oprah’s book club, you might know this classic by Elie Wiesel. This book is harrowing, but approachable in that it is short. Night is the most well known, but it is actually the first book in a trilogy. While these books are just one of many voices that came out of the War, Wiesel is important because of his life-long work focused on overcoming oppression around the world.
Playing for Time is written by a woman who was Jewish and a resistance worker…and also a singer. She survived by earning a spot in the orchestra who played in Auschwitz. Her experiences were also made into a TV movie in 1980 (below).
If you have never read Anne Frank’s diary, you should if for no other reason than it has become part of the culture…one of those books that most Americans and Europeans have read.
I’m just going to say it: she can be really annoying and a brat, and the worst of what she had to say was actually edited out by her father (but is in print if you really want to read it).
But her voice is unique in that is what she had to say while events were happening, rather than afterwards.
If you’ve read and were moved by the Diary, this biography reveals the full story of Anne and the Frank family.
The memoirs of Miep Gies, one of the Dutch office workers, is one of the most interesting of the numerous Frank related works to me because it tells the story of what it took to take care of people in hiding and also is an example of a typical Dutch citizen during the war.
This book is a good option for young adult readers or struggling older readers.
Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who went to the camps for helping to hide Dutch Jews. She was released on a fluke, and spent the rest of her live helping others.
You can visit the Ten Boom residence if you are in the Netherlands by taking a short train ride to Haarlem from Amsterdam. I found that trip well worth it as the Corrie ten Boom House is much less commercialized than the Anne Frank House and the experience was more personalized. The docent I spoke remembered World War 2 in the Netherlands, and her willingness to talk to me made the experience unforgettable.
This book has a strong Christian element.
Krug’s recently published and beautifully executed memoir Belonging, tells the story of Krug’s German family during and since WW2. I don’t think many people are aware of how the German people have worked to make amends for the war, even though in 2019, the few people who are still alive from the war itself were children.
Click here to read The Lois Level on this book and issue.
You know the saying “truth is stranger than fiction”? Well, this recent book shows that facts are more shocking than narrative. Helm tells the complete story of Ravensbruck, the only camp that was completely female, which is also the story of the Nazi regime. To personalize the story, Helm does switch between a focus on several individuals. If you don’t often read straight nonfiction, this one might be worth a try. Note that it is long, so prepare to settle in for a while.
If you read The Painted Bird, be warned, it is brutal! When I read books such as this, I wonder how anyone in Europe survived World War 2. In this book, a young boy finds himself on his own in Poland and at the mercy of people who brutalize him based on his social class and his own fear.
I remember reading it practically straight through because I had to get to the end in order to be able to sleep.
I debated whether I should extend this into the war in Japan, but I decided to limit my recommendations to just one books. Shusaku Endo is not well known outside of Japan, but his books have been translated. This one is a short one delving into what when on with the prisoners in Japan. Keep an eye out for an upcoming entry on this topic.
The last two books I have here are Young Adult novels, and the are both quick to read.
The first one, The Road from Home, is a lightly fictionalize account of the treatment of the expulsion of the Armenian minority from Turkey. When I was teaching, I used this book as a companion to Anne Frank so that students understood that the Nazis did not invent the idea of ethnic cleansing.
I’ve always liked Number the Stars because the Jewish characters have a lot more agency in their lives than they do in most Holocaust literature. I think it’s unhealthy to read too much about any group of people from only one perspective, if that makes sense.
When Germany finally got around to occupying Denmark in 1943, people had no illusions about what the Nazis were going to do, so Sweden, who was not occupied, agreed to accept Denmark’s Jewish population, if the Danes could get them to Sweden. How they did it is the focus of this story.
This book is a good option for younger readers: it isn’t too scary, and it’s an approachable read.
If you feel like you’ve heard of Lois Lowry before, it might be because of The Giver. Number the Stars is the OTHER Lowry book that has won the Newbery Medal!