Holocaust Books You Should Read

With this blog, we explore crucial literature that offers insights into the Holocaust, the darkest chapter in world history. Our selections include powerful memoirs like If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, detailing his survival in Auschwitz, and Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski, which reveals the Polish resistance’s efforts during World War II and Karski’s role in disseminating knowledge of the ongoing extermination of Jews in occupied Poland. 

We also cover historical analyses such as the monumental KL: A History of the Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann, alongside poignant narratives like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – a novel that captures the tragedy and pain of the wartime era through the eyes of a young girl, and that managed to bring the reality of the Holocaust to a new generation. 

Through these books, we aim to honor the memories of those who endured the Holocaust and to foster understanding for readers today. If there is a book you think should be on the list, please get in touch. And if you’re travelling in Poland, please consider joining us for a Guided WW2 Tour.

Primo Levi in the 1950s

If This Is a Man

Primo Levi’s memoir, If This Is a Man, shares his harrowing experiences in Auschwitz during World War II. Arrested as part of the Italian anti-fascist resistance, Levi details life in the concentration camp with profound insight.

“However this war may end, we have won the war against you. None of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world would not believe him. There will be perhaps suspicions, discussions, and research by historians, but there will be no certainties because we will destroy the evidence together with you. And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed – they will say they are the exaggerations of Allied propaganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you.” — [An SS man speaking to a Jewish kapo in Levi’s If This Is a Man]

The brutal starkness and unflinching defiance of Levi’s testimony makes it essential reading today, perhaps more than ever before. In a time when the truth is being routinely stretched and distorted by bad actors, historical knowledge is a weapon. 

Schindler’s Ark

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally is the bestselling account of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who became an unlikely hero by saving Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. Despite his flaws, Schindler’s transformation into a saviour shows just what impact one individual can have. 

Later adapted into Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, this book offers a deep dive into the complexity of human nature, courage, and the capacity for redemption, even in the darkest times.

“He who saves the life of one man saves the entire world.”

― Line from The Talmud quoted in Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark.
English Edition of Borowski’s Work

This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

Tadeusz Borowski’s nightmarish collection, This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, offers a stark portrayal of life in Auschwitz through the eyes of Tadek, a political prisoner. Borowski’s stories are particularly good at exploring the complex dynamics among prisoners, exposing the harsh survival tactics and moral compromises made. 

With biting satire and the blackist of humour, the stories reveal the everyday horrors of camp life, making it a poignant reminder of the depths of despair of those caught up in the whirlwind of history.

Amis in 2014

Time’s Arrow

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis presents a haunting narrative of a Holocaust doctor’s life, told in reverse chronology. This inventive storytelling technique not only disorients but forces a reexamination of morality and human nature. As we journey backward through the protagonist’s life, witnessing the inversion of cause and effect, Amis masterfully exposes the absurdity and horror of the Holocaust in a manner that challenges traditional narrative forms. 

The novel explores themes of guilt, identity, and the inescapable nature of one’s past, culminating in a provocative reflection on the atrocities committed and the bizarre, disturbing logic of reversing time to confront the unimaginable truths of human history.

“What is it with them, the human beings? I suppose they remember what they want to remember.” — Time’s Arrow

Ordinary Men

Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men examines how Reserve Police Battalion 101, comprised of regular, middle-aged German men, perpetrated mass murders during WWII. Browning reveals that these men, driven not by fanaticism but by conformity, authority, and altered moral norms, participated in the Holocaust. This profound study challenges the stereotype of perpetrators as monsters, showing how ordinary individuals can commit extraordinary atrocities under certain pressures, highlighting the terrifying power of group dynamics and the malleability of morality.

The conclusions of Browning’s work are hard to face, but we ignore them at our own peril. 

US Postal Stamp in Honour of the Polish Underground

Story of a Secret State

A thriller-like firsthand account of the Polish resistance during WWII, Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State gave the world an early insight into the German occupation and the Holocaust. 

Karski, a courier for the Home Army, details his perilous missions and encounters with leaders like Roosevelt. His narrative, once met with disbelief, highlights the courage and complexity of the Polish underground struggle. Published in 1944, it became a vital source for understanding Poland’s plight and the broader horrors faced under Nazi tyranny.

KL: A History of the Concentration Camps

Nikolaus Wachsmann’s groundbreaking KL: A History of the Concentration Camps offers a comprehensive account of the Nazi German camp system from its inception to its end. Through years of archival research, Wachsmann not only synthesizes scholarly work but also unveils startling revelations about the camps’ operations and the lives within them. 

The book sheds light on the nuanced experiences of perpetrators and victims, exploring the moral ambiguities of survival in “the gray zone.” Wachsmann’s detailed analysis provides a unified view of the Nazi regime’s brutal architecture, making it an essential read for understanding the complex history of the camps and their lasting impact on human memory.

The Book Thief

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a YA novel set in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death. It follows Liesel Meminger, a young girl finding solace in stealing books during the turmoil of World War II. Her story intertwines with those of her foster family and the Jewish man they hide, exploring themes of love, loss, and the power of words against the backdrop of historical atrocities.

Although a work of fiction, the tremendous success of Zusak’s beautiful novel brought the story of the Holocaust to a new generation of readers.

In conclusion, the books we’ve discussed provide deep insights into the Holocaust, highlighting survival, resistance, and the human condition, whether in its proclivity for doing evil or beating all the odds to show kindness, despite finding one’s self in the centre of Bosch-like hell. 

They encourage us to reflect on this dark period, ensuring we keep the memory alive and learn from history. When so many so-called leaders, commentators, and tastemakers are boasting of their anti-expert nature, spending time with these profound works is an antidote. 
If you have any questions, please get in touch.

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