The best stories of World War II that you’ve never heard before

Stephanie Vanderslice Author Of The Lost Son
By Stephanie Vanderslice

Who am I?

In writing The Lost Son, which is loosely based on family history, I immersed myself in the history of World War II and in the world between the wars. It was important to me to understand this period from both sides—from the perspective of Germans who were either forced to flee their homeland or witness its destruction from within by a madman, and from the perspective of Americans with German ties who also fought fascism. The stories of ordinary people during this time are far more nuanced than the epic battles that World War II depicted, as the stories of ordinary people often are. 

I wrote...

The Lost Son

By Stephanie Vanderslice,

Book cover of The Lost Son

What is my book about?

How does someone end up with sons fighting on opposite sides in World War II? Twenty years before Julia Kruse’s life was shattered when her husband and the baby’s nurse kidnapped her youngest son, Nicholas, from his crib and returned to Germany. Through the Great Depression, Julia struggled to provide for her remaining son, Johannes, but never gave up hope of finding Nicholas, even as her attempts were thwarted at every turn. Neither did Johannes. Now stationed in Germany and fighting for the Allies during the last days of the Third Reich, Johannes must run a race against time to bring his younger brother home to America and back to Julia. Fortunately, he has help from an unusual, well-placed connection. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler

Why did I love this book?

Sons and Soldiers tells the stories of the Ritchie Boys, a special military intelligence unit of the US Army in World War II trained in Camp Ritchie, Maryland and made up of German-Austrian men, often German Jews who had fled Nazi persecution. These men had everything to lose: if they were captured and identified behind enemy lines, they would be killed on the spot. However, they also knew that their special knowledge of the German language and German culture gave them an advantage against Hitler’s army. The Ritchie Boys were critical to the Allied victory. Not surprisingly, those who survived went on to become leaders in American society, great heroes who understood that there are some things worth dying for. 

By Bruce Henderson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'The last great, untold story of WWII... highly compelling' Daily Mail

Fleeing Nazi persecution for America in the 1930s, the young German-born Jews who would come to be known as The Ritchie Boys were labelled 'enemy aliens' when war broke out. Although of the age to be inducted into the U.S. military, their German accents made them distrusted. Until one day in 1942, when the Pentagon woke up to the incredible asset they had in their ranks, and sent these young recruits to a secret military intelligence training centre at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.

These men knew the language, culture and…

Book cover of Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood among the Nazis

Why did I love this book?

Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood Among the Nazis offers a nuanced glimpse of what it was like to grow up in Germany from 1928 to 1948. Author Jurgen Herbst joined the Hitler Youth or Jungvolk and became a leader because he supported a mythic German past. But the more involved he became as the war wore on, the more he understood and was deeply troubled by the nefarious basis of the National Socialist regime. His descriptions of how fascism slowly overcame a democratic country are particularly chilling. Captured at the end of the war by American forces, Herbst would learn even more of the horrors that had taken place in Nazi Germany, horrors that forced him to leave his home country for the US, pledging never to return.

By Jurgen Herbst,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Requiem for a German Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jurgen Herbst's account of growing up in Nazi Germany from 1928 to 1948 is a boy's experience of anti-Semitism and militarism from the inside. His father was a loving parent, a scholar, a man of principle - and a German officer. Herbst was a middle-class boy in a Lutheran family that saw value in Prussian military ideals and a mythic German past. His is a tale of moral awakening. He recalls his confusion as some of his classmates are no longer welcome at his school, and his consternation as he tries to reconcile what he learned from his favourite teachers…

Heirlooms: Stories

By Rachel Hall,

Book cover of Heirlooms: Stories

Why did I love this book?

An unforgettable collection of linked stories, Heirlooms follows one Jewish family escaping Holocaust-era St. Malo, France through to present-day America and Israel. Hall depicts with masterful, exquisite prose just what it means to be a refugee, to rebuild a life outside one’s own country, to survive and endure. I recently taught Heirlooms to a class of fiction writing students who deeply appreciated this stunning collection and what they could learn from it about storytelling, and about resilience.

By Rachel Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Heirlooms as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fiction. Jewish Studies. Montaigne Medal Finalist. Winner of the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Marge Piercy. HEIRLOOMS begins in the French seaside city of Saint-Malo, in 1939, and ends in the American Midwest in 1989. In these linked stories, the war reverberates through four generations of a Jewish family. Inspired by the author's family stories as well as extensive research, HEIRLOOMS explores assumptions about love, duty, memory and truth.

Quiet Americans

By Erika Dreifus,

Book cover of Quiet Americans

Why did I love this book?

Erika Dreifus’ collection of stories, Quiet Americans, offers a haunting, kaleidoscopic view of the Holocaust as it has reverberated through the lives of generations of American Jews right up to the present. Depicting, among them, a high-ranking Nazi’s wife and a Jewish doctor, a Jewish-American soldier guarding a German POW, and a refugee returning to Europe against the backdrop of the terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, these are stories, characters that have stayed with me even as I read this book more than ten years ago when it debuted. Dreifus is an expert at dissecting and reframing this dark chapter in human history and showing its effects on ordinary people. 

By Erika Dreifus,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Quiet Americans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A high-ranking Nazi's wife and a Jewish doctor in prewar Berlin. A Jewish immigrant soldier and the German POWs he is assigned to supervise. A refugee returning to Europe for the first time and the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. A son of survivors and technology's potential to reveal long-held family secrets. These are some of the characters and conflicts that emerge in QUIET AMERICANS, in stories that reframe familiar questions about what is right and wrong, remembered and repressed, resolved and unending.

Book cover of On Hitler's Mountain: My Nazi Childhood

Why did I love this book?

Born in 1934 in Berchtesgaden, in the shadow of Hitler’s Eagles Nest, Irmgard Hunt witnessed the growth of fascist ideology among the people she loved during an otherwise idyllic childhood. As the shadow of World War II fell over the mountain, however, Hunt began to question and then disavow the Nazi doctrines she had accepted as a young child. As time went on and the regime crumbled literally before her eyes, she was vocal in confronting her country’s criminal past and in championing the democratic principles her elders had so easily dismissed.

By Irmgard Hunt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Hitler's Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Irmgard Hunt was born into Nazi Germany in 1934 and brought up in the Bavarian village of Berchtesgaden, just outside the fence that surrounded Hitler's alpine retreat and headquarters. On Hitler's Mountain is her account of a childhood under the Third Reich as the daughter of low-level Party members. As a model Aryan toddler, she was photographed sitting on Hitler's knee, and attended school with the children of Albert Speer and Fritz Sauckel. Like many ordinary Germans her parents considered themselves to be moral and honourable: her father was a porcelain artist (at the workshop that provided Hitler with his…

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