There are few major historical events as fascinating — and as important — as the Holocaust. Whether you’re completing an academic assignment, consider yourself a history buff, or just trying to learn something new, reading a novel about the Holocaust is an excellent way to gain insight into this heartbreaking and astounding time. But which books are worth reading? Keep scrolling for 30 must-read fiction books about the Holocaust.
All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See is a stunning book by Anthony Doerr which won the Pulitzer Prize and spent more than two straight years on the New York Times bestseller list. The book follows Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl who is tasked with smuggling a valuable jewel out of the war-torn city, and Werner, a young German orphan and radio expert who is enlisted in the German army to help track down the resistance. The two young people’s paths cross multiple times as they both do their best to survive the war and retain their humanity.
When the German police arrive at her home to arrest her children and husband, all of whom are of Romani heritage, Helene Hannemann refuses to let them go alone. The German-born wife and mother accompanies her family across Europe to Auschwitz, where her husband is immediately separated from them. Thus begins Helene’s trials as a German imprisoned in the notorious prison camp, from having to fiercely protect her children to being forced to serve as a nurse in the infamous camp hospital run by the evil Dr. Mengele. Interestingly, Auschwitz Lullaby is a novelization of a true story.
The Book Thief
Uniquely narrated by Death, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany in 1939. The story follows a young girl named Leisel, who maintains her humanity by stealing books and sharing them with neighbors — and the Jewish man hiding in her foster family’s basement — during bombing raids. The Book Thief, which has also been turned into a film, was nominated by PBS’s The Great American Read as one of America’s best-loved books.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
It’s 1942, and young Bruno is forced to move when his father receives a promotion. Bruno is disappointed to find that his new home has very few children with whom he can play. There’s also a tall fence that goes on as far as the eye can see, and which separates him from other people. Soon, Bruno meets another boy his age, though the two are very different. Their friendship blossoms, but ultimately has devastating consequences in this powerful book by John Boyne.
Everything is Illuminated
Jonathan Safran Foer
Though it reads like a memoir, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is a novel about a young man who travels to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, all he has is a tattered photograph, a translator who tends to mangle his English, a “blind” old man, and a guide dog named Sammy Davis, Jr, Jr.
If I Should Die Before I Wake
In If I Should Die Before I Wake, Han Nolan challenges readers to view their biases and prejudices from another angle. She does so by introducing Hilary, a young girl who joins a gang of neo-Nazis in order to gain friends and a sense of belonging. But when she is injured in a terrible accident, Hilary somehow wakes up as Chana, a Jewish girl struggling to survive in the ghettos and concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Jacob the Liar
Jacob the Liar is a classic novel written by East German Jewish writer Jurek Becker. The titular Jacob is Jacob Heym, a man stuck living in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland. When a practical joke lands Heym in the dreaded police precinct — from which no Jew ever exits — he is thrilled to hear that the Red Army is rapidly approaching Poland. Because no one would believe him if he said he’d been inside of the precinct, Jacob tells his closest friends that he has a radio, a possession that is forbidden among Jews. This simple lie sets off a series of events that begs the question, “Does he act responsibly by lying, even if he has only good intentions?”
The Last of the Just
The Last of the Just is a classic text that has been re-published a number of times throughout its history. It tells the story of Ernie Levy, a Jewish man living under the shadow of rising National Socialism in 1920s Europe. Levy is “The Last of the Just” — that is, the last in a long line of Levys that extend back to 1185, where his ancestor was blessed by God as one of the 36 Just Men of Jewish tradition. Schwarz-Bart writes with haunting detail a story about honoring family and tradition in the face of ultimate survival.
The Man from the Other Side
The Man from the Other Side is the first of two books written by Uri Orlev to make our list of must-read fiction books about the Holocaust. This middle grade novel features Marek, a Polish boy who has never thought twice about the Jewish people living in the ghetto near his home in Warsaw — that is, until he accompanies his stepfather through a sewer in the middle of the night to smuggle food and guns. As Marek is forced into the plans that would become the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he begins to understand what it means to be persecuted, isolated, and faced with almost certain death.
Mendelssohn Is On the Roof
Jiri Weil is the author of this thought-provoking novel. In Mendelssohn Is On the Roof, an aspiring SS officer is tasked with removing the statue of Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn from the roof of the concert hall in Prague. Unfortunately, the young officer isn’t quite sure which one is Mendelssohn, and when he pulls down the one with the large nose — an assumption made after taking the required course on “racial science” — he is annoyed to find that it wasn’t Mendelssohn, but Richard Wagner.
The New York Times referred to Leon Uris’s Mila 18 as “Not only authentic as history, [but] convincing as fiction!”Mila 18 is a thrilling novel that brings to life the Jewish uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, during which prisoners used homemade weapons and their bare fists to go up against the power and cruelty of their German captors.
Newbery Medal-winning author Jerry Spinelli is the author of the bestselling book, Milkweed. Milkweed revolves around a young orphan living on the streets of Warsaw. Though he’s known as “Jew,” “Gypsy”, “Stopthief,” and “Filthy Son of Abraham,” the boy actually has grand ambitions of becoming a Nazi with a crisp uniform and shiny boots. That is, until the trains come to empty the ghetto of all Jews.
My Mother’s Ring: A Holocaust Historical Novel
Dana Fitzwater Cornell
For those who survived the war and the Holocaust, things didn’t really end in 1945. At least not entirely. In My Mother’s Ring, author Dana Fitzwater Cornell explores what life would be like for those haunted by such traumatic events. The novel, which was runner-up at the 2013 London Book Festival, tells the story of Henryk Frankowski and his desire to tell his story as he lays dying. Henryk narrates an incredible wartime journey, from his childhood in Warsaw to the fate of his family during the Holocaust.
The Nightingale is a wildly popular and critically acclaimed book by bestselling author Kristin Hannah. This beautiful story follows two sisters living in France during World War II. While Vianne struggles to keep herself and her daughter alive while living under the same roof as a German captain requisitioned in her home, her younger sister Isabelle searches for purpose and joins the dangerous Resistance.
Number the Stars
The Danish Resistance is one of the most incredible stories to come out of World War II, and Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars illustrates the country’s rescue of nearly 7,000 Danish Jews with page-turning thrill. This Newbery Medal winner illustrates it all through the eyes of 10-year Annemarie Johansen, whose family takes in her best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as a member of their family.
Once is an award-winning young adult novel by Morris Gleitzman. The book revolves around Felix, a young Jewish boy hiding from the Nazis in an orphanage for Catholic children. But Felix doesn’t know anything about Nazis or war, and thinks he’s staying at the orphanage while his parents are traveling. When Felix begins to believe his parents might actually be in danger, he escapes to go find them — and heads straight into the heart of Nazi-occupied Poland.
The Paris Architect
Charles Belfoure’s The Paris Architect is an edge-of-your-seat page-turner about Lucien Bernard, a talented Parisian architect who is asked to build a clever hiding place for a wealthy Jewish man. Though Lucien is well aware that doing so could get him killed, he also knows he needs the money. But things become complicated when one of Lucien’s hiding places fails terribly, and the challenge of hiding a Jew becomes personal.
Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is a powerful novel about love, compassion, and morality set against the stark reality of postwar Germany. The story begins when 15-year old Michael falls ill on his way home from school and is taken in and cared for by Hanna, a mysterious woman more than twice Michael’s age. The two kindle a relationship and friendship — until the day Hanna disappears without explanation. The next time Michael sees her, he is an adult and lawyer, and she is on trial for a terrible wartime crime.
Run, Boy, Run
“The most important thing, Srulik, is to forget your name. Wipe it from your memory…But even if you forget everything — even if you forget me and Mama — never forget that you’re a Jew.” Those are the last words eight-year old Srulik Frydman hears from his father before he’s sent into the Polish countryside as a runaway. Srulik adopts the name Jurek Staniak, and battles everything from Polish winters, to crippling starvation, to the constant hovering of German soldiers in this powerful novel by Uri Orlev.
Tatiana de Rosnay
Tatiana de Rosnay’s massively bestselling book, Sarah’s Key tells two interlinking stories simultaneously. The first is the story of Sarah, a 10-year old girl living in Paris in 1942. When her family is arrested by the French police during the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up, Sarah locks her younger brother in a cupboard, thinking the family will be back home in only a few hours. In 2002, a journalist stumbles upon Sarah’s story and follows the girl throughout her long war-time ordeal.
Schindler’s List is arguably one of the best known novels about Holocaust. Written by Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List is a novelization of the real-life efforts of Oskar Schindler, a German war profiteer and factory director who risked his life to save more Jews from death than any other single person in World War II history.
William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is so powerful, it’s become a common lingual phrase that describes an impossible choice. Set in New York, the classic novel follows a turbulent affair between a brilliant Jew and a beautiful, yet mysterious Polish woman with a heartbreaking wartime past.
Jodi Picoult is known for her powerful and thought-provoking novels, and The Storyteller is no exception. This bestselling book centers on an unlikely friendship formed between Sage, a baker and loner, and Josef Weber, an old man revered and respected around their small town. When Josef asks Sage to help him die — a fate he insists he deserves due to the fact he was an SS officer during World War II — Sage is torn because her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.
Suite Française provides the modern reader with a remarkable snapshot of the Holocaust and wartime France. The novel opens in Paris on the eve of Nazi occupation. It continues with Parisians from all backgrounds fleeing the city, and to a small village occupied by Germans, where the proud French must learn to live with the enemy. Interestingly, author Irene Nemirovsky was a Jewish writer living in Paris. In 1942, Nemirovsky was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. Suite Française was one of Nemirovsky’s last manuscripts, and it remained hidden and unknown for 64 years.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Author Heather Morris based The Tattooist of Auschwitz on actual interviews conducted with Ludwig “Lale” Sokolov, the real-life Auschwitz tattooer who is the focus of this bestselling novel. When Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is sent to Auschwitz in April 1942, he is given the job of tattooing each of his fellow prisoners with the number that would permanently mark them. Over the course of his two-and-a-half-year imprisonment, Sokolov witnesses some of the most horrific scenes in the history of mankind, but also risks his own life to keep alive as many of his fellow prisoners as possible.
The Things We Cannot Say
Kelly Rimmer’s critically acclaimed The Things We Cannot Say is the heartbreaking wartime story of two childhood sweethearts, Alina and Tomasz. Trapped in a Russian refugee camp, Alina waits for Tomasz, whom she has secretly married, to return home from college in Warsaw. But when Tomasz disappears, Alina seems to hear for the first time the concerns of her neighbors and the rumors of Nazi soldiers and the fate of European Jews. As Alina’s family and village are torn apart by fear and hate, she waits for her love and harbors a secret that will remain buried until the next century.
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (which is sometimes published as Ladies and Gentlemen, To the Gas Chamber) is a book of short stories written by Tadeusz Borowski. The stories are all directly inspired by Borowski’s own experiences at Auschwitz and Dachau, where he was imprisoned as a political prisoner.
Village of a Million Spirits: A Novel of the Treblinka Uprising
Of all the concentration camps, Treblinka is one that gets little attention. And yet, it was the site of one of the bravest events of the Holocaust. Ian MacMillan’s Village of a Million Spirits fictionalizes the inspiring event in which 600 Treblinka prisoners rose up against their captors. Only 40 survived the August 1943 revolt.
The Violin of Auschwitz
Maria Angela Anglada
Maria Angela Anglada’s The Violin of Auschwitz was already an international bestseller when it was finally published in English. The novel tells the story of Daniel, a young Jewish man imprisoned at Auschwitz. When it is revealed that he was once a maker of fine violins, Daniel becomes the center of a bet between the camp Kommandant and a doctor better known for torturing than healing. Daniel is forced to battle his ever-increasing exhaustion in order to craft the loveliest of violins and prove the power of beauty and art.
We Were the Lucky Ones
Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones is a New York Times bestseller about three generations of the Kurc family. In 1939 in Poland, the Kurcs are more concerned about new babies and upcoming weddings than they are the impending dangers for Jewish families like them. But when they can no longer turn the other way, the close-knit family is flung to the far corners of the world in a desperate attempt to survive.
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