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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By David S. Wyman

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

Why 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.


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FDR and the Jews

By Richard Breitman, Allan J. Lichtman

FDR and the Jews

Why 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.


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Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

By Andrew Nagorski

Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Why 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.


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

By Michael Dobbs

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

Why 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.


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Why?: Explaining the Holocaust

By Peter Hayes

Why?: Explaining the Holocaust

Why 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.


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