The Holocaust is one of the most widely discussed and written-about topics in human history and for many good reasons. At the same time, there are also lots of misconceptions about it and many people just assume that they know enough based on the bits and pieces they’ve heard growing up. That’s one of the many things that makes the books and testimonials of Holocaust survivors so relevant to this day.
With so many books about the Holocaust out there, however, it can be tough knowing where to start. So, we thought we’d give you a quick list of the 21 must-read books about the Holocaust. These include novels, biographies, and autobiographies, as well as broader historic works. Suffice it to say that whatever your preferred style or format is, you can find it below.
8 Biographical and Autobiographical Books About The Holocaust
Probably the most common type of Holocaust-related literature is the survivor’s autobiography or biographies written by relatives later on. These can sometimes have a slightly fictitious element and others – be purely historical.
1. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Probably the most famous book about the Holocaust to this day, Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl deserves that honor with its seemingly boundless insight.
There is nothing we can say about The Diary of a Young Girl, about Anne Frank herself, or the legacy of both the book and the person that hasn’t been said before.
Even if some of Frank’s political views have become a topic of debate in recent years – and, some might say, have been largely misunderstood and misinterpreted – the message and impact of her diary are undisputed. Detailing the two years Frank had spent in hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands together with her family, Frank’s diary is the first book about the Holocaust everyone would recommend, and rightly so.
2. My Father’s Blessings by Celina Fein
Celina Fein’s autobiography My Father’s Blessings tells the story of a young Warsaw girl who lost nearly 300 family members but managed to not only survive but also rebuild her life in America.
Fein’s autobiography may be a much more recent and not as often cited book, but that shouldn’t detract from its qualities. In fact, it offers a lot of things not all books about the Holocaust do
My Father’s Blessings gives us the perspective of a person with an especially large family – nearly 300 family members, all caught up in the same nightmare – as well as the story of how one slowly rebuilds their life after such a horrific event thanks to the teachings and blessings of their elders.
3. How to Be a Refugee by Simon May
A book about the Holocaust, unlike most others, How to Be a Refugee: The gripping true story of how one family hid their Jewish origins to survive the Nazis tells the story of a rather unique way one family used to survive those harsh times.
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to those Jewish people in Nazi Germany whose Jewish heritage wasn’t well-known among their neighbors, How to Be a Refugee answers that question. The book explores a family’s story that’s much different from the fates of most other German Jews at the time.
Instead of trying to emigrate or hide, May’s mother and her two sisters all decided to try and turn their backs on their family’s history. The book details just how they managed to do that as well as how they eventually married into the German elite and became “Aryan.” But at the book’s heart is the price they still had to pay – hiding their identities not just from the world around them but eventually from themselves too.
4. Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning offers not just the harrowing story of his life in Auschwitz but also a fascinating and inspiring window into the human psyche everyone can benefit from.
You’d think the autobiography of a Holocaust survivor would be depressing and you’d often be correct in that assumption, but Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning is lauded by many as the exact opposite – an incredibly uplifting cure for depression. Frankl is a neurologist-psychiatrist, after all, and his personal experience in Auschwitz seems to be both a big reason why he pursued that career and why he’s so good at it.
The book itself is focused on the question of people’s ability to assign purpose and meaning to things, even when under the direst of circumstances. This question and the masterful way in which Frankl presents it is what makes Man’s Search For Meaning so special and unique among all other books about the Holocaust.
5. The Choice by Edith Eger
In Auschwitz at 16 and forced to dance for Dr. Mengele, Eger endured the horrors of the Holocaust and lived to tell the tale in The Choice: A true story of hope.
What makes The Choice stand out from other autobiographies of Holocaust survivors isn’t the amount of horror Edith Eger has had to endure or the number of relatives she’d lost. It also isn’t the interesting factoids such as that she was an accomplished ballerina by the time she was abducted by the Nazis or that she was forced to dance for “The Angel of Death” dr. Mengele.
Instead, The Choice is special for its message of trauma recovery which few other Holocaust books have managed to present as well. Often dubbed “The Anne Frank who didn’t die”, Eger bases her book as well as the decades of her life after Auschwitz on helping people with all kinds of trauma learn how to understand, accept, and overcome it.
6. Lily’s Promise by Lily Ebert and Dov Forman
Written by Lily’s grandson, Dov Forman, Lily’s Promise: How I Survived Auschwitz and Found the Strength to Live tells the story of not only the Holocaust survivor herself but of her search for her savior after the war as well.
Lily’s Promise tracks the life of Lily Ebert from her happy childhood in Hungary through all the horrors of WWII that brought that happiness to an end. That middle part of the book tells a painfully familiar story – lost relatives, concentration camps, and slave labor, but also the determination to survive and to keep those still around you as safe as possible.
The heartwarming twist that follows comes in the form of the Jewish-American soldier who helped free her and then gave her a banknote with the words “the start to a new life, good luck, and happiness!” on it. Written by Lily’s grandson Dov Forman, the book also tells of how she slowly rebuilt her life after the war and went looking for the GI and his family decades later.
7. The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku
A seemingly strangely named book considering its topic, The Happiest Man on Earth isn’t just a retelling of the horrors Eddie Jaku survived decades ago but also the story of how he found meaning and happiness after that.
Reading that title, you wouldn’t expect that book to be about the Holocaust. Yet, it is a retelling of his life – his life before WWII when he considered himself a German first and a Jew second, his 7 whole years during the war when he moved through the horrors of Buchenwald, to Auschwitz, and to the Nazi death march. Then, the book continues with his life after the war.
What’s key here, however, is Eddie’s undying conviction that a man should smile every day of their life, no matter what. Published when Eddie was 100 years old, this book is a monumental reminder that no tragedy should ever bring your smile off your face.
8. A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer by Melissa Muller
Aptly named, A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer follows the story of a young pianist and a mother who found herself in the concentration camp Theresienstadt together with her husband and their 6 years old son.
The biography of Alice-Herz-Sommer shows us a lot of things many other Holocaust biographies don’t – how life for the Jewish people in pre-WWII Germany was getting progressively worse even before they started being deported or thrown in concentration camps, how much harder than ordinary Germans often had to work, but also how their hard work and art could save their lives during the hardest times.
Simultaneously, Alice Herz-Sommer’s biography shows us the life of Jewish mothers during the Holocaust and what it means to constantly have to fight not only for your own sanity but for that of your child as well.
7 Novels About The Holocaust
A lot of novels about the Holocaust will either be entirely fictitious but still carry the spirit of the event and be historically accurate to it, or they are partly based on true events and add more on top of it. In essence, the line between a novel and a biography is sometimes slightly blurred but there’s no denying that all the novels below are definitely worth your time.
1. The Most Precious of Cargoes by Jean-Claude Grumberg
A 20th-century fairytale set during the Holocaust, The Most Precious of Cargoes is one of the most unique and fascinating stories you’ll ever read about this period.
There are many novels and fairytales that start with a poor couple finding an abandoned baby. What happens, however, when such a story is set during the Holocaust and when we know for a fact many people were forced to abandon their children and many others were finding children hidden from the Nazis in unbelievable places? This chilling story shows us both sides of that heartwrenching gamble.
On the one hand, the Jewish parents with their baby twins rode a train across wintery Europe with the mother not having enough milk for both babies. So, the father wrapped one of the babies in a shawl and leaves her in the forest by the train tracks. Then we see the woodcutter’s wife finding an abandoned baby wrapped in a shawl by the tracks and having to decide what to do, knowing full well what harboring a Jewish baby can mean for her own family.
While the story of The Most Precious of Cargoes isn’t strictly biographical, it’s a story that happened countless times during WWII and Jean-Claude Grumberg tells it in a truly thrilling fashion.
2. The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner
The Yellow Bird Sings follows the story of a 5-year-old girl and her mother hiding in a barn and passing the time with stories of a yellow bird until circumstances force the girl’s mother to make the most difficult choice.
Holding a caged bird at home is a tough moral choice – do you keep the bird in the cage where it’d be safe, or do you set it free and accept that you won’t be able to protect it anymore?
A similar dilemma was presented to countless Jewish parents during the Holocaust but in regard to their children – do you keep the child hidden with you or do you try to give it a chance at a better life somewhere far away from you?
The Yellow Bird Sings presents us with a story of that choice told in a painfully beautiful and realistic way. The book tells of a Polish Jewish mother and her daughter, hiding in a farmer’s barn, talking via sign language to not make a sound, and finding comfort in tales of a singing yellow bird. Sooner or later, however, the mother has to choose whether to keep her daughter with her or risk setting her free.
3. The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
Selling cigarettes may be a tricky business today but it was much more than just that for one 17-year-old tobacconist in 1937 Vienna as The Tobacconist shows.
A very personal story of pre-war life in Austria, The Tobacconist follows the steps of the young Franz as he moves from the Austrian countryside to the cosmopolitan busy life of Vienna. There, Franz starts working as a tobacconist’s apprentice and begins to make a living by getting people their cigarettes and newspapers.
While doing that, Franz also meets a certain Professor Freud who happens to live in Vienna at that time. Freud’s love for cigarettes and giving young men life advice quickly bonds the two but that friendship happens mere months before Nazi Germany annexes Austria and all hell breaks loose.
4. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a fictional retelling of true events. It follows Lale Sokolov who had to spend his time in Auschwitz tattooing the arms of other inmates with their prisoner numbers.
When we talk about tattooists today we imagine a cool underground artist bending over a chair and drawing gorgeous ink art on a client’s arm or back. In Auschwitz, however, being a tattooist meant something entirely different – marking people with a dehumanizing 5-digit code that they’d wear for the rest of their lives.
Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew himself, got that horrible “job” in Auschwitz-Birkenau simply because his captors discovered he was multilingual. The book details not only how horrible that job and life in Auschwitz could be, however, but also how much a tattooist in Auschwitz could actually do to help those around him, how many different experiences he could witness, and how one can even find love in the most horrible place on Earth.
5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
One of the most famous novels about that period, The Book Thief follows the heartwarming story of a young girl with a love for books and her harsh life in war-time Munich.
The Book Thief gives us a look at WWII Germany and the Holocaust from a different perspective not many books touch upon – that of a non-Jewish German child that has to grow up discovering what her country is doing simultaneously with learning to read.
The story follows young Liesel who finds a strange book by her brother’s graveside. The book is called The Gravedigger’s Handbook and seems to have been left there by accident. Liesel takes the book, even though she can’t read yet, and thus begins her life of book thievery. Her accordion-playing foster father starts teaching her how to read while she continues grabbing books from anywhere she can – her neighbors, Nazi book burnings, the mayor’s home, and more.
As Liesel learns how to read, however, she also starts learning about all the things that are wrong in her country – especially once Liesel’s foster family starts harboring a Jew in their basement.
6. The Book Smugglers by David Fishman
The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis is the story of not just one book thief but many partisans and poets who did all they could to save the legacy of the Jewish people from destruction during the war.
This is a book that shows how the Holocaust was more than “just” a giant needless loss of human life. It was also the attempted erasure of an entire ancient culture as if it had never existed – a complete genocide.
The Book Smugglers shows this attempt as well as the painful lengths to which people went to oppose it in a stunning fashion. The book follows the residents of a Jewish ghetto who had to hide, bury, and smuggle their books, diaries, personal letters, and all sorts of other writings from both the Nazis and the Soviets.
What’s more – the entire premise of the book is true. It’s not technically biographical as there are fictitious elements in the retelling but David Fishman bases the book on the true story of a group of poets from Vilna, “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” He masterfully crafted the story after reading countless letters, memoirs, and reports of the dire actions taken by these heroes in the face of both the Nazi and Soviet invasions they had to endure.
7. The Nightingale: A Novel by Kristin Hannah
A story of two sisters, each of whom had to fight her way through war-torn France on her own, The Nightingale: A Novel is as beautiful and inspiring as it is heartbreaking.
This expertly-written novel aims to show us both sides of life in Nazi-occupied France. Kristin Hannah does this by following the lives of two sisters. The first is Vianne, a wife to a French soldier who went to the front, a mother to his children, and the sole keeper of their home. Vianne has the hard task of living through the occupation and makes one sacrifice after another as she attempts to keep her children safe even when the Nazis requisition her home.
The second sister, the younger Isabelle, has to make her own set of difficult choices – she falls in life with a Parisian partisan, suffers betrayal, joins the Resistance, and more. The Nightingale shows these two roles in a unique fashion but also stresses how tragically common both of these lives were in occupied France.
6 Historical Books About The Holocaust
As above, the line between a historical book and a biography or autobiography can be somewhat blurry. The latter are types of the former, after all. Still, in this category, we’ve listed some of the historic works on the Holocaust that aim to show the event from a wider angle and not just explore the life of one or two people in particular.
1. Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 by David Cesarini
Succinct, smart, and thought-provoking, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 is one of the best books to pick up if you don’t feel you know enough about the Holocaust and you want to start from the right place.
Cesarini’s Final Solution is the product of decades of research. The author went through all types of sources – from the reports and diaries found in concentration camps across Europe, through previously-secret documents found in the now-open Soviet archives, to declassified Western intelligence files.
Thanks to all that research, Final Solution is one of the most comprehensive and enlightening historical books available today. This book is ideal both for people who don’t know much about the Holocaust as well as for those who feel they already know plenty.
That’s because the book doesn’t just contain a lot of information, it also shares quite a few revelations a lot of people don’t learn elsewhere such as the erratic and not fully planned out nature of the Jewish genocide, the local initiatives that filled the gaps left by the central Nazi command, as well as the countless mistakes that ultimately led not just to the fall of Nazi Germany but to the survival of European Jews.
2. The Death of Democracy by Benjamin Carter Hett
The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic is a comprehensive and expertly-written book both about the Holocaust and the events that led to it.
To fully understand the events of the Holocaust, one should also understand the events that took place before it – the fall of the Weimar Republic, the rising anti-liberal sentiments among both nationalists and communists, the exact way in which Hitler capitalized on them to take power even though he was still supported by a far-right minority of Germans at the time, and how he used that power to quickly and ruthlessly dismantle both his opposition and the very structure of Germany’s government.
This whole slow lead-up to the Holocaust can seem inevitable from today’s point of view, but The Death of Democracy shows us just how gradually and “naturally” each event unfolded and just how fragile modern democracy really is.
3. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps offers a detailed look at all 12 years of the existence of concentration camps – from their inception to their destruction.
Even though the Nazi concentration camps are just one aspect of the long and convoluted history of Hitler’s far-right regime, their own history is as long as it is horrific as well. Existing from 1933 to 1945, the Nazi concentration camps were scattered all across Europe and not just in Germany, and they also came in different types, with different purposes, and different functions.
What’s more, the Nazi concentration camps were much more than just big fenced areas where the Nazis kept Jewish people – the camps were actually an integral part of the war effort and the people in them were often used for slave labor, experimentation, and more. Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps is one of the best modern sources for studying that side of the Holocaust you can find today.
4. Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City by Gordon J. Horwitz
Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City tells the story of the city of Lodz, its large Jewish community, and the extraordinary lengths to which the Nazis went to fully and forcefully transform everything around them to their liking.
While the Second World War impacted every corner of Europe and most of the rest of the world in the most horrifying fashion, it should also be remembered that every country, city, and even neighborhood experienced that horror in a slightly different manner.
Gordon J. Horwitz’s masterwork follows the story of the city of Lodz in Poland – the home of the second-largest Jewish community in the country before the start of the war. The book tells the story of the city in the most minute and excruciating detail, how the Nazis turned it into a Ghettostadt – a ghetto town – how the Polish Jews there struggled to survive, how the rest of the city’s Poles were affected, and more.
5. Why? Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes
Excellent for those looking for an introduction to the history of the Holocaust, Why? Explaining the Holocaust also offers an astonishing amount of depth and insight into what and why exactly happened during those dark years.
In the face of tragedies such as that of the Holocaust, one of the most common human instincts is to ask “Why?!” And, indeed, many books and other works have been produced over the years in an attempt to answer that question. Some are apologetic, others are condemning, and even today there are still worryingly numerous bad-faith arguments and “explanations” that try to switch the blame onto the German Jews.
One of the best takes on that question we’ve seen so far, however, is that of Peter Hayes. In Why? Explaining the Holocaust, Hayes manages to effortlessly dismantle a lot of the lies and misconceptions surrounding the Holocaust and the events that preceded it. The author then systematically lists all the factors that truly played into the event and addresses all the questions people have about them.
6. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany by Marion Kaplan
Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany is a fantastic collection of letters, interviews, and memoirs that together tell a very full and intimate tale of Jewish life in Nazi Germany.
A beautiful, tragic, and vital collection of letters, interviews, and memoirs from one of humanity’s darkest periods, Between Dignity and Despair is one of the most intimate and clear portraits of the Holocaust we can read today.
In that book, Kaplan manages to simultaneously show us the bigger picture of the Jewish fate during the Third Reich as well as the personal side of countless ordinary families and the tragedy of Jewish motherhood, in particular.
As one of the most defining events of the 20th century and of human history as a whole, you’d think the Holocaust would be something everyone was fully aware of. Yet, not only are countless school curriculums sorely lacking when it comes to this subject but parliaments all across the globe get filled by more and more self-professed Holocaust deniers.
As grim as that is, it’s also why we’re happy you made it this far into this article. We hope one or two of the books above have caught your eye so we might all learn more from history together and Never Again let tragedies of this sort unfold.