No Excuse for Ignorance: Books to Understand the Holocaust

The entrance to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland/Photo © Shutterstock

It has become cliché to respond to certain situations by saying we do not possess a language with which to speak of them, that certain experiences are ineffable. But if human beings are capable of acting in particular ways, there must be words to describe those actions. If human beings can do it, we must have the words to write about it.

As a consequence, there’s little excuse for those who claim to not have knowledge of the events of the Holocaust, the attempt by the Nazis to wipe European Jewry from the face of the earth. The Nazis were responsible for the deaths of eleven million people in concentration camps; six million of them were Jews, who, if they were not killed in the camps themselves, were killed in mass executions that took place in villages throughout eastern Europe. Today, it is possible for writers such as Richard Zimler to document travels in Poland, a country that prior to World War II had a large, vibrant Jewish population, and to meet adults who have never before met a Jewish person.

Here, we present a list of the varieties of Jewish experience during the Holocaust, told by novelists, historians, and memoirists remembering their own experiences.

  • The cover of the book Black Earth

    Black Earth

    The Holocaust as History and Warning

    Snyder, whose most recent book, On Tyranny, has been shared all over London via a poster campaign, argues that the Holocaust is not an event locked away in history. Instead, he argues, evidence from Eastern Europe suggests that the hatreds and sources of conflict at play during the Holocaust are close to the surface in the twenty-first century. Writing in a New York Times review, Michael Marrus says that “Black Earth” elucidates human catastrophe in regions with which a Western audience needs to become more familiar.”

  • The cover of the book Ordinary Men

    Ordinary Men

    I have never forgotten sitting in a small classroom listening as Professor Christopher Browning gave a paper on research that he had recently completed and that was forthcoming in his new book, Ordinary Men. In a lecture that upset me then, and upsets me now to think about, Browning spoke about the “ordinary men” of Reserve Police Battalion 101 from Berlin. These were the middle-aged, mostly working-class men, who were given training to serve while younger men were away. But, as Browning documents, the men were taken to Poland, and given the job of “clearing” villages of Jews, meaning that these “ordinary men” killed thousands of Jews. Few opted out, and those that did cited the gruesomeness of the work rather than any ethical qualms about the systematic murder they committed.

    Browning’s work disabuses readers of the notion that it takes special training or a special type of personality to commit mass murder. The men who participated responded to peer pressure, rather than ideology, in their decisions to slaughter men, women, and children.

  • The cover of the book The Complete Maus

    The Complete Maus

    A Survivor's Tale

    When Maus first appeared with its cartoon Jewish mice and Nazi cats and Polish pigs, it “jolted” its first readers, who weren’t quite sure how to classify it. Was it a comic book about the Holocaust and, thus, an unworthy form for talking about such a monstrous occurrence? Or was it one of the best memoirs ever written, comprised of the memories of Art Spiegelman the artist, attempting to talk to his “impossible” father, a cantankerous old man who is a survivor or Auschwitz? Any questions of the non-seriousness of Spiegelman’s masterpiece have been swept aside. Philip Pullman may have said it best when he wrote: “Maus is a masterpiece, and it’s in the nature of such things to generate mysteries, and pose more questions than they answer. But if the notion of a canon means anything, Maus is there at the heart of it. Like all great stories, it tells us more about ourselves than we could ever suspect.”

  • The cover of the book The Warsaw Anagrams

    The Warsaw Anagrams

    Some people cannot bring themselves to read about the Holocaust as straightforward subject matter. It’s too painful, too triggering, too difficult to face. Richard Zimler found a way to write about the fate of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto by framing it inside a captivating mystery. It’s the way Zimler has “educated” readers about Jewish history through a number of literary mysteries that have explored dark themes while engaging the rich intellectual and cultural history of the Jews in Europe.

    In The Warsaw Anagrams, Richard Zimler makes the murder of one Jewish child mean something while millions are being murdered in the camps. By focusing on one death, Zimler allows his readers to begin to comprehend the enormity of six million Jewish deaths, forcing readers to recognize how the loss of a single individual unmakes the world. What then to make of the Holocaust?

  • The cover of the book Anne Frank

    Anne Frank

    Anne Frank’s diary is perhaps the only Holocaust book that most Americans are required to read as part of their education. It began in an autograph book that Anne had when she and her family and members of another family went into hiding in an attic in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Of the eight people Anne went into hiding with, only one – Anne’s father, Otto – survived, and it was he who had his daughter’s diary published. The book has been translated into sixty-seven languages, and, in America, is frequently challenged by parents who want it removed from school reading lists. The reason? Anne, as a normal adolescent, was curious about the changes that were occurring in her pubescent body. Some parents object to their own adolescents reading about body parts, thus exposing – again – that Americans continue to get more worked up over issues of sex than they do over issues of violence, even the violence that claimed the lives of eleven million Jews, Slavs, gay people, Communists, and others in the Concentration camps.

  • The cover of the book Austerlitz


    The story of Dafydd Elias, a young Welsh man who goes to Oxford to study architecture, may seem at first glance to have nothing to do with the Holocaust. But as Elias investigates his past, he discovers that he is really Jacques Austerlitz, the child of Prague Jews, who sent him as part of a Kindentransport in 1939 to England, where he was adopted and raised by a Welsh couple. Sebald, who was born in 1944 in Germany, takes his readers on a difficult journey of revelation: of what became of his parents, and what remains in the architecture of Prague even though its Jews are largely gone.

  • The cover of the book Man's Search for Meaning, Gift Edition

    Man's Search for Meaning, Gift Edition

    Viktor E. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor who spent three years in the camps. This book was named by the Library of Congress as one of the “Ten Most Influential Books Ever Written.” Its premise is that people cannot avoid suffering, but they can create meaning out of it. It is cited over and over again by reviewers as a book that has changed the reviewer’s life.

  • The cover of the book Moments of Reprieve

    Moments of Reprieve

    A Memoir of Auschwitz

    Primo Levi is one of the great chroniclers of the Holocaust. One could choose from any number of his volumes to feature in this list. Moments of Reprieve focuses on individual stories from Auschwitz, where Levi was imprisoned and made to work as a chemist. Levi looks at how individuals found ways of surviving – their “moments of reprieve” – through small manipulations of the human nature of the guards, or by grabbing at chances. Levi’s own moment of reprieve came when he was suffering from scarlet fever while imprisoned and was not expected to survive, which meant that he was not selected for a death march in which 20,000 perished.

  • The cover of the book Rena's Promise

    Rena's Promise

    A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz

    This is the remarkable story of one of the longest survivors of Auschwitz. Rena was the 716th woman to be brought to the camp. Two days later, her sister, Danka, followed her. Statistics suggest that it was more difficult for women to survive than men. Women could bear a future generation of Jewish babies, and the Nazis were determined to make certain that the last generation of Jews would perish during the Final Solution. The story of how the two women survived is a must-read.

  • The cover of the book Letters from Nuremberg

    Letters from Nuremberg

    My Father's Narrative of a Quest for Justice

    U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd’s father, Thomas J. Dodd, served as a staff lawyer during the trials that tried members of the Nazi party for war crimes. Over the course of fifteen months, Dodd wrote detailed letters about the proceedings to his wife who was back in the United States. The letters were preserved in a family archive. The book details the senior Dodd’s interrogations of figures who included Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg, Albert Speer, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Rudolf Hess.

  • The cover of the book Eichmann Before Jerusalem

    Eichmann Before Jerusalem

    The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer

    Hannah Arendt believed Adolf Eichmann when he claimed that he was just a petty bureaucrat in the machinery of the Holocaust. Stangneth uses documentation to dispute Eichmann’s characterization of himself. “The enduring image of Eichmann as faceless and order-obeying, Stangneth argues, is the result of his uncanny ability to tailor his narrative to the desires and fantasies of his listeners,” Steven Ascheim wrote for the New York Times. Stangneth presents evidence of writings both before and after the war to argue that Eichmann was the Holocaust’s architect, not its paper-pusher.

  • The cover of the book Gertruda's Oath

    Gertruda's Oath

    A Child, a Promise, and a Heroic Escape During World War II

    The Gertruda of the title is the Catholic nanny to three-year-old Michael, the son of Polish Jews. Gertruda promises Michael’s parents that she will make certain that the boy survives and that she will get him to Palestine. This book, like other stories of righteous Gentiles such as Oskar Schindler, details the efforts that a few were willing to go through to save their neighbors and friends, or, in this case, their tiny charges.

  • The cover of the book Isaac's Army

    Isaac's Army

    A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland

    A book to offer to anyone who wants to know why the Jews didn’t resist, Isaac’s Army details the Polish resistance movement that fought against the Nazis beginning with the 1939 invasion, and which culminated in the heroic Warsaw Uprising. Among those profiled in Isaac’s Army is Zivia Lubetkin, a woman who was among those who engaged in the first armed actions against Nazi occupiers. Simha Ratheiser benefitted from having blonde hair, which allowed him to sneak out of the Ghetto to move in the city looking like an ordinary teenager. Their remarkable story is told in splendid detail by Brzezinski, a former Warsaw correspondent for the New York Times.

  • The cover of the book Boy 30529

    Boy 30529

    A Memoir

    Felix Weinberg was twelve in 1939 when he was taken by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp, and went on to move through five camps. He was liberated in 1945. What makes Weinberg’s account of his life remarkable is his “matter of fact” attitude toward his having survived six years. His takeaway? “[S]urvival feels less like a heroic act than having won a lottery against truly astronomical odds.”

  • The cover of the book The Night Trilogy

    The Night Trilogy

    Of the books in the trilogy Night, the story of a young boy and his father in a concentration camp may be the most familiar to American audiences, although all three of the books take as their subject the consequences that accrue to those who were held in the camp. What people tend to remember when reading Night is the stark language. Wiesel does not embellish his language when describing what he observed as the fifteen-year-old who was sent to the camps. What comes through in reading Night and Wiesel’s other works is just how difficult it is to believe that human beings could have perpetrated this horror against other human beings.

    For the religious, the eternal question remains: where was God? As Wiesel wrote:

    “Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
    “For God’s sake, where is God?”
    And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
    “Where He is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”