January 27, 2020 marks 75 years since the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, the largest of the concentration camps during the reign of Nazi Germany. And though the last of the concentraion camps would not be liberated until early May, International Holocaust Day is celebrated on January 27 each year.
One of the ways we continue to remember this horrific time in history is through books. Countless writers have explored the darkness of the Holocaust, many of whom experienced it themselves, or have family member that survived the period.
Although there is no shortage of works that tell valuable stories, each of the Holocaust books below recount unique perspectives—including ones you've likely never read before—that go beyond better known works such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s Night or Art Spiegelman’s excellent graphic novel, Maus.
In 1943, President Roosevelt accepted just under a thousand Jewish refugees for entry into the country. The only thing standing between them and a safe haven in New York was a dangerous journey across the Atlantic. A young journalist named Ruth Gruber was given the order to escort the refugees to safety. Under daily threat of Nazi ambush, she gave them English lessons, held their children, and listened to their stories. This unusual Holocaust book is her account of that incredible journey across the sea.
Escape from Sobibor
In October of 1943, something miraculous happened—at the Nazi death camp at Sobibor, 600 prisoners staged the largest successful prisoner revolt of WWII. After fighting with SS guards, overcoming the barbed wire fences, and traversing a field of live mines, 300 prisoners survived. This account of the camp at Sobibor and the remarkable revolt is based on interviews with 18 of the survivors.
Fragments of Isabella
In 1944, Isabella was living in the ghetto in Kisvárda, Hungary with her family. That May, the ghetto was emptied and all of the inhabitants were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz. This powerful memoir was written 30 years after the end of the war, and describes the horror of the camps—and the indomitable spirits of Isabella and her sisters as they waged a daily battle for survival.
The Last Jews in Berlin
By the end of World War II, there were approximately one thousand Jews left in Berlin. During the height of the war, many of the Jews chose to hide in plain sight of the Gestapo. Gross details the real-life stories of a dozen Jewish men and women who spent 27 months in hiding. Among the survivors interviewed were a jewel-trader, a teenager, and a clothing designer, who used their resourcefulness, bravery, and luck to survive when countless others were unable.
Unlike most of the books on this list, Holocaust Journey is neither a novel not a personal account of life during the tragic time period. Instead, renowned Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert takes readers into the past the best way he knows how: through wartime documents, letters and diaries, and photographs and maps from the 14-day journey he took with his graduate students. The result is a unique Holocaust book that manages to draw a straight line from the past to the present.
Jack and Rochelle
Jack and Rochelle first met at a youth dance in Poland, sharing one unremarkable dance. Years later, after both separately escaped Nazi invasion of Eastern Poland, they reunited to become Jewish partisans who fought back against the Nazis. Their relationship eventually blossomed into an enduring love which sustained them through the horrors of the Holocaust. Their amazing survivor story is told through extensive interviews with their son, Lawrence.
Survival in the Shadows
In the last—and deadliest—years of the Holocaust, two Jewish families survived against all odds in the Nazi capital of Berlin. Hiding in a small factory less than two miles from Hitler’s bunker, the survival of the Arndt and Lewinsky families depended on the kindness from German strangers. A touching portrayal of the bravery of the seven Jews and their allies, they went on to be rescued in April 1945, with four of the survivors eventually marrying in a double wedding ceremony.
Other People's Houses
This semi-autobiographical novel chronicles the seven years Segal spent in England after fleeing from her native Austria on the Kindertransport, a train carrying hundreds of Jewish children to safety from Hitler’s looming threat. Living with a number of different families over the years, Lore is tasked with writing to potential sponsors in the hopes of bringing her parents to England. As the world gets closer to war, Lore finds herself fighting for the survival of her family.
One of Spain's most acclaimed voices, Molina's book blends genres to create snapshots of Jewish life under Hitler and Stalin's regimes. In one chapter, two women are bound for camps in Russia and Germany, while another sees romance bloom between a nun and a shoemaker. Themes of memory and displacement tie each of the separate narratives together, creating a complex but nuanced portrait of what it means to endure unfathomable horrors and survive to tell the tale.
The Last Jew of Treblinka
Chil arrived at the extermination camp at Treblinka in 1942. He was forced to work as a barber and a dentist at the camp—though in this setting, a “barber” shaved the head of the prisoners, and a “dentist” was the person who removed gold fillings from corpses. After nearly a year, Chil managed to escape from Treblinka. This is the only eyewitness account of the horrifying Polish extermination camp.
King of the Jews
This 1979 historical fiction novel focuses on a rarely discussed fact of the Holocaust: the Judenrat in the Łódź Ghetto. A group of Jewish officials appointed by the Nazis, the Judenrat was forced to carry out their orders, including choosing who would live and die. A Polish Jew named Trumpelman is appointed as their leader—and it is his character that gives this book its darkly humorous edge.
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Epstein has done the impossible. He has shown what the power of art—of his art—can reveal of the depths of the unspeakable.”
Death Had Two Sons
When Haim and his two sons, Daniel and Shmuel are sent to a concentration camp during the war, Haim must make a painful decision which will haunt the family forever. Forced to choose which son will live, Haim condemns Daniel to die. But it is Daniel who survives the camp, and decades later must reconnect with his father who is dying from lung cancer. Strangers to each other, Daniel struggles with the internal conflicts from his past that prevent him visiting with his father.
This novel tells the story of a gay, black man swept into the horrors of the Holocaust, bringing to light the largely forgotten experiences of those sent to concentration camps for “sexual deviance.” Clifford makes his name as a jazz pianist in Harlem before moving to the sexually liberated city of Berlin. But as the Nazi party rises to power, the liberal society disappears. Clifford is arrested for homosexuality and transported to the Dachau concentration camp, where he must fight every day for his survival in the face of terrible circumstances.
An Underground Life
As a gay, half-Jewish man, Gad Beck was doubly targeted under the Nazi regime. But—aided by his Christian relatives and a great deal of luck—he managed to stay in Berlin throughout the Holocaust, and remained an active member of the Jewish Resistance movement throughout the war. His memoir is a fascinating, surprising glimpse into the lives of the Jews who managed to avoid the initial deportations and went underground, and of a young man coming of age in a violent, volatile world.
From Holocaust to Harvard
When Hitler’s forces annexed Austria, the Stoessinger family fled—first to Prague, and then to the other side of world. John Stoessinger was age 10 when his family relocated to Shanghai; after the war, he moved to America where he became a highly successful foreign relations expert. This Holocaust book offers a look at managed to instill fear in people everywhere—even those who managed to escape.
The first all-Jewish transport to Auschwitz, which consisted entirely of women and girls, took place in 1942. Onboard was 17-year-old Rena Gelissen. At Auschwitz, she was reunited with her sister. In the face of great horror, the women in the camp made desperate, fleeting human connections with one another that were vital in their efforts to survive. Gelissen’s memoir offers one of the rare accounts of women in the concentration camps.
A highly successful violinist, Alma Rosé had founded her own women’s orchestra and traveled throughout Europe to perform before turning 30. Though she was able to escape the Nazis initially, in 1943 she was captured and taken to Auschwitz, where she was placed in control of the camp’s Women’s Orchestra. This biography is a story of a fascinating woman, who used the little power she was given to try to save the lives of the young terrified musicians who became her charges.
Featured photo: Jewish Memorial in Berlin, courtesy of Giulia Gasperini / Unsplash