The best World War II books about people from Poland

Who am I?

I am an author, lifelong history geek, and relentlessly curious about finding unknown stories. In 2002 I met Henry Zguda, an eighty-five-year-old Polish Catholic who survived three years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. He lived a mile from my house. Intrigued, I soon offered to write his incredible story. I am not Polish and knew little of Poland or Polish history when I began. This led to over ten years of research on Poland, World War II, and the Holocaust. My friendship with Henry changed the direction of my life and gave me keen insight into the plight of Poles, both Jewish and Christian, during World War II. Thousands of memoirs and books exist on the Holocaust. I believe the inspiring stories of Poles and other victims of Hitler and Stalin deserve equally widespread recognition.

I wrote...

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

By Katrina Shawver,

Book cover of Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

What is my book about?

Poland, 1942. Henry Zguda was at home in the water. But one night in May, the SS arrested the celebrated competitive swimmer in Kraków for the sole crime of being Polish. Two weeks later, he was far from the life he’d known, interred as political prisoner #39551 at Auschwitz.

Told through a series of heartfelt conversations with the author, Henry recounts his gut-wrenching story of miraculous survival and of refusing to succumb, even amidst the most brutal of horrors. Interwoven with carefully constructed historical research and evidence, this powerful account of a Christian persecuted by Nazis is a gripping tale of love, loss, and loyalty that sheds light on some of the lesser-known evils of the Holocaust. He witnessed and lived through the absolute worst of humanity, yet preferred to look ahead rather than behind.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Irena's Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto

Why did I love this book?

Irena (Sendlerowa) Sendler, a Polish Catholic, worked as a social worker for the City of Warsaw. After the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, she worked forging identity papers and assisting Jews, many of whom were friends. She used her access to the Warsaw ghetto to help rescue over 2,500 Jewish children. After the Gestapo arrested her, she survived brutal torture but never once gave up a child’s or fellow rescuer’s name. 

Irena’s story serves as a symbol of all those people who helped her, the members of Polish resistance organizations, and the thousands of Poles who risked their own lives and the lives of their families, to assist, shelter, and rescue Jews. Yad Vashem recognizes over 7,000 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations. For various reasons, the actual number of Polish rescuers is likely thousands more. This account by Tilar J. Mazzeo does justice to the story and brings out the human side of the remarkable Irena Sendler.

By Tilar J. Mazzeo,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Irena's Children as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For desperate families trapped inside the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 with small children, one name was whispered urgently. It was the name of a young social worker in her thirties with the courage to take staggering risks and to save over 2,000 of those children from death and deportation.

Granted access to the ghetto as a public health specialist, Irena Sendler began by smuggling orphaned children out of the walled district and convincing her friends and neighbours to hide them. Soon, she began the perilous work of going from door to door and asking Jewish families to trust her with…

Book cover of The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz

Why did I love this book?

Witold Pilecki risked everything for his country. As a Polish resistance fighter he volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in September 1940. There, he helped forge a Polish underground resistance of hundreds of prisoners. Despite torture, hunger, and conditions far worse than anyone imagined, he remained in the camp for two-and-a-half years by choice. His well-documented reports on Auschwitz in early 1941 were the first ones sent out of the camp. His plea? Destroy the camp before it grew worse.

Jack Fairweather wrote a definitive account that is thoroughly researched, and an engaging read. The world ignored Pilecki’s reports during the war. After the war, Russian communists declared Pilecki and his family enemies of the state. Pilecki’s story is well-known and revered in Poland. His valor and sacrifice deserve worldwide recognition.

By Jack Fairweather,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Volunteer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


“Superbly written and breathtakingly researched, The Volunteer smuggles us into Auschwitz and shows us—as if watching a movie—the story of a Polish agent who infiltrated the infamous camp, organized a rebellion, and then snuck back out. ... Fairweather has dug up a story of incalculable value and delivered it to us in the most compelling prose I have read in a long time.” —Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and Tribe

The incredible true story of a Polish resistance fighter’s infiltration of Auschwitz to sabotage…

Book cover of My Sister's Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin's Siberia

Why did I love this book?

My Sister’s Mother is a family memoir set against the backdrop of forced evictions and deportations of Poles to forced labor camps in frozen Siberia. Russia invaded Poland two weeks after Germany did, and the two powers divided Poland between their countries. Soviet communists murdered thousands of Polish citizens, Polish military, and in 1940 deported hundreds of thousands of civilian Poles, in freezing cattle cars, to forced labor camps in Siberia.

Urbikas’ mother and older sister faced impossible circumstances imposed by Stalin’s brutal policies against Poles. The core theme focuses on motherhood, the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and how far a woman will go to survive and protect her child. Then, the story transitions into the epilogue of war for thousands of Poles: life in a displaced persons camp and growing up with inherited trauma and the challenges common to first-generation Polish immigrants.

By Donna Solecka Urbikas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Sister's Mother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 1950s, baby boomer Donna Solecka Urbikas grew up in the American Midwest yearning for a ""normal"" American family. But during World War II, her Polish-born mother and half sister had endured hunger, disease, and desperate escape from slave labor in Siberia. War and exile created a profound bond between mother and older daughter, one that Donna would struggle to find with either of them. In this unforgettable memoir, Donna recounts her family history and her own survivor's story, finally understanding the damaged mother who had saved her sister.

Book cover of The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

Why did I love this book?

Winston Churchill called Christine Granville his favorite spy during World War II. However, Christine Granville was the code name for Krystyna Skarbek who was born in 1915 in Poland to an aristocratic father and Jewish mother. She grew up privileged, sharp-witted, and later became an expert skier fluent in French. Beautiful, daring, difficult, and adventurous, she and her husband fled to Britain when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. There she volunteered to spy for the British and became Britain’s first female special agent.

Granville’s intelligence and effective espionage saved hundreds of lives. The French and British governments conferred many awards to Christine for her bravery. She dreamed of a free Poland, yet Poland fell to communism after the war. She remained in Britain and became a British citizen. Clare Mulley’s well-researched book brings new recognition to this outstanding Polish woman.

By Clare Mulley,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Spy Who Loved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In June 1952, a woman was murdered by an obsessed colleague in a hotel in South Kensington. Her name was Christine Granville. That she died young was perhaps unsurprising, but that she had survived the Second World War was remarkable. The daughter of a feckless Polish aristocrat and his wealthy Jewish wife, she would become one of Britain's most daring and highly decorated special agents. Having fled to Britain on the outbreak of war, she was recruited by the intelligence services long before the establishment of the SOE, and took on mission after mission. She skied into occupied Poland, served…

All But My Life: A Memoir

By Gerda Weissmann Klein,

Book cover of All But My Life: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

Gerda Weissmann was only age fifteen when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Born in Bielsko Poland to a middle-class Jewish family, the book follows her family’s loss and tragedy through the Holocaust. The author survived multiple concentration camps and a death march against impossible odds. Liberated on her twenty-first birthday, she weighed only sixty-eight pounds. This inspiring book includes moments of human decency and normalcy.

Of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, three million were from Poland. Klein captures the essence of what it meant to survive a genocide with only her life. Klein is a highly recognized voice for human rights and Holocaust remembrance, and the beneficiary of many awards and honorary degrees. Gerda Weissmann Klein is a name to be remembered.

By Gerda Weissmann Klein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All But My Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

All But My Life is the unforgettable story of Gerda Weissmann Klein's six-year ordeal as a victim of Nazi cruelty.

From her comfortable home in Bielitz (present-day Bielsko) in Poland to her miraculous survival and her liberation by American troops--including the man who was to become her husband--in Volary, Czechoslovakia, in 1945, Gerda takes the reader on a terrifying journey.

Gerda's serene and idyllic childhood is shattered when Nazis march into Poland on September 3, 1939. Although the Weissmanns were permitted to live for a while in the basement of their home, they were eventually separated and sent to German…

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Interested in Poland, World War 2, and Holocaust survivors?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Poland, World War 2, and Holocaust survivors.

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