The best books on the Holocaust and the United States

Rebecca Erbelding Author Of Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America's Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe
By Rebecca Erbelding

Who am I?

I’m a historian who specializes in the American response to the Holocaust. Growing up, I remember being confused—it seemed like the United States knew nothing about the Nazi persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews—or it knew everything!—but either way, the US didn’t do anything to help. And that didn’t make sense with what I knew about the United States, a country that never speaks with one voice on any issue. And as I dug in, I learned that this is a fascinating, infuriating, nuanced history full of very familiar-sounding struggles over whether and how the country will live up to the ideals we claim for ourselves. 

I wrote...

Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America's Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe

By Rebecca Erbelding,

Book cover of Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America's Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe

What is my book about?

Rescue Board is about a United States government agency tasked with trying to rescue and provide relief for the still-surviving Jews of Europe in 1944-1945. Stick with me, I know your eyes glazed over when you read “government agency.” This is not a story of meetings and memos. The truly inspiring people who ran this agency snuck humanitarian aid into Europe, entered into ransom negotiations with the Nazis, opened a refugee camp in upstate New York and brought the only group of refugees outside of the immigration system to live there, recruited famous rescuer Raoul Wallenberg, leaked detailed information about Auschwitz-Birkenau to the American press (resulting in the first use of the word “genocide” in newspapers), bought speedboats and guns for resistance fighters, and sent 300,000 food packages into concentration camps. If you think the US should do more to help victims of genocide, this history might give us the blueprint and inspiration to replicate their efforts today.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941

Why did I love this book?

Wyman’s later book, The Abandonment of the Jews got all the attention, but Paper Walls, about how immigration to the United States actually worked and how the US government alternately tried and refused to aid Jews desperately attempting to escape increasing Nazi persecution and violence, is my go-to recommendation. If this is your family’s story, or if you want to know why Jews couldn’t just leave, Wyman’s book will explain a lot.

By David S. Wyman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“Paper Walls was the first scholarly book to deal with the question of America’s response to the Nazi assault on the European Jews. A revised version of my Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University, it was originally published in 1968... Those times were very different from these. There was little public receptivity to Holocaust studies then, and only limited academic interest... The scholarly reviews, of which there were several, were favorable. But the general press paid little attention to the book...

A pioneer in its field, Paper Walls first established the thesis that three features of American society in the 1930’s…

FDR and the Jews

By Richard Breitman, Allan J. Lichtman,

Book cover of FDR and the Jews

Why did I love this book?

Anytime I give a talk, someone asks, “Well, what was really going on with FDR? Why didn’t he do anything?” And the answer to that is always: it’s complicated. But Breitman and Lichtman do a great job explaining how FDR could be both beloved by the Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s and blamed today for not welcoming Jewish refugees escaping Hitler. And the answer is partly our expectations. We want him to have been a humanitarian, but he was a politician who did some things when he could, but ultimately prioritized recovery from the Great Depression and victory in World War II. You’re going to leave the book more frustrated than when you started, but maybe that’s the answer? It was complicated.

By Richard Breitman, Allan J. Lichtman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Nearly seventy-five years after World War II, a contentious debate lingers over whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his back on the Jews of Hitler's Europe. Defenders claim that FDR saved millions of potential victims by defeating Nazi Germany. Others revile him as morally indifferent and indict him for keeping America's gates closed to Jewish refugees and failing to bomb Auschwitz's gas chambers.

In an extensive examination of this impassioned debate, Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman find that the president was neither savior nor bystander. In FDR and the Jews, they draw upon many new primary sources to offer an…

Book cover of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Why did I love this book?

The 1930s were the golden age of newspaper reporting. Reporters were celebrities, and most American households subscribed to at least one of more than 2,000 daily newspapers. And the reporters covering Germany were the best of the best, from Edgar Ansel Mowrer, HV Kaltenborn, and William Shirer, to Dorothy Thompson and Sigrid Schultz. Nagorski, a former foreign correspondent himself, brings that expertise to this book, looking at what Germany was like in the 1930s and how American reporters tried to convey the chaos to the public at home. You will want to shout at the reporters—don’t they know what is about to happen!?—but you also won’t be able to stop turning the pages.

By Andrew Nagorski,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

World War II historian Andrew Nagorski recounts Adolf Hitler’s rise to and consolidation of power, drawing on countless firsthand reports, letters, and diaries that narrate the creation of the Third Reich.

“Hitlerland is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Reading about the Nazis is not supposed to be fun, but Nagorski manages to make it so. Readers new to this story will find it fascinating” (The Washington Post).

Hitler’s rise to power, Germany’s march to the abyss, as seen through the eyes of Americans—diplomats, military officers, journalists, expats, visiting authors, Olympic athletes—who watched horrified and up close. “Engaging if chilling…a…

Book cover of The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between

Why did I love this book?

The Unwanted is perhaps the best all-around book explaining the crisis faced by Jewish refugees trying to escape to the United States. Dobbs merges the intimate histories of members of the Jewish community in the small German town of Kippenheim, the work of the US State Department officials in Germany and France, American refugee aid workers, and President Roosevelt. By utilizing both personal and official sources, Dobbs allows all the people he writes about to speak for themselves. It’s beautifully written and heartbreaking, and whatever you think about this history when you start the book, those thoughts will be more nuanced and complicated when you’re finished.

By Michael Dobbs,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a riveting story of Jewish families seeking to escape Nazi Germany.

In 1938, on the eve of World War II, the American journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote that "a piece of paper with a stamp on it" was "the difference between life and death." The Unwanted is the intimate account of a small village on the edge of the Black Forest whose Jewish families desperately pursued American visas to flee the Nazis. Battling formidable bureaucratic obstacles, some make it to the United States while others are unable to obtain the necessary…

Book cover of Why? Explaining the Holocaust

Why did I love this book?

To be honest, Hayes’s book has just a chapter on American and world response to the Holocaust (which he calls “Onlookers”) but the book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this subject. Hayes, a Holocaust studies professor emeritus at Northwestern University, basically took all his lectures to undergrads and put them into this book, explaining why and how the Holocaust happened. It’s an incredibly readable book reflecting the latest scholarship, answering all the most frequently asked questions, and giving you all the context you need to make sense of why the United States—the people and the government—responded the way they did.

By Peter Hayes,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Why? Explaining the Holocaust as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Peter Hayes has been teaching Holocaust studies for decades and Why? grows out of the questions he's encountered from his students. Despite the outpouring of books, films, memorials, museums and courses devoted to the subject, a coherent explanation of why such carnage erupted still eludes people. Numerous myths have sprouted, many to console us that things could have gone differently if only some person or entity had acted more bravely or wisely; others cast new blame on favourite or surprising villains or even on historians.

Why? dispels many legends and debunks the most prevalent ones, including the claim that the…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Germany, the Holocaust, and international relations?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Germany, the Holocaust, and international relations.

Germany Explore 390 books about Germany
The Holocaust Explore 337 books about the Holocaust
International Relations Explore 233 books about international relations

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Ordinary Men, Night, and The Nazi Conscience if you like this list.