The best books to learn about the Holocaust: before, during, and after

Who am I?

I’m a bicultural writer from the U.S. who has always loved reading historical novels, and I recently “found” my writing genre when I published a debut novel, set in Ukraine during the Holocaust. Writing about that horrific time is fraught with difficulty and is often a frightening endeavor. As writers, we’re obligated to get every fact right, as the truth honors the victims and survivors. To that end, I read dozens and dozens of books—history, biographies, art books, memoirs, and fiction. There are many worthy books that could be on this list, but with just 5 to pick, these made a large impact on me beyond just factual research.


I wrote...

My Real Name Is Hanna

By Tara Lynn Masih,

Book cover of My Real Name Is Hanna

What is my book about?

Recipient of multiple national book awards and a finalist in the National Jewish Book Awards, My Real Name Is Hanna is inspired by real Holocaust events. 

Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Sparse, resonant, and lyrical, weaving in tales of Jewish and Ukrainian folklore, My Real Name Is Hanna celebrates the sustaining bonds of family, the beauty of a helping hand, and the tenacity of the human spirit. This poignant debut novel is a powerful coming-of-age story that will resonate with fans of The Book Thief and Between Shades of Gray.

The books I picked & why

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The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

By John Hendrix,

Book cover of The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

Why this book?

This meaningful graphic YA novel, by talented award-winning illustrator John Hendrix, makes accessible to both youths and adults the history behind Hitler’s rise to power, and reveals how much of Germany allowed for his ascendancy and enabled him. But mostly, it's a touching tribute to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the few high-profile German Upstanders. Learn the history of attempted assassinations and why Bonhoeffer made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler

By John Hendrix,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Adolf Hitler's Nazi party is gaining strength and becoming more menacing every day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor upset by the complacency of the German church toward the suffering around it, forms a breakaway church to speak out against the established political and religious authorities. When the Nazis outlaw the church, he escapes as a fugitive. Struggling to reconcile his faith and the teachings of the Bible with the Nazi Party's evil agenda, Bonhoeffer decides that Hitler must be stopped by any means possible!

In his signature style of interwoven handwritten text and art, John Hendrix tells the true story of…


They Were Like Family to Me: Stories

By Helen Maryles Shankman,

Book cover of They Were Like Family to Me: Stories

Why this book?

This finalist for the Story Prize is one of the most tightly woven, inventive, important collections I've ever read. Shankman draws from personal family history to explore intersecting lives in a Polish village during Nazi occupation. Layered with mystical beings and historical events, somehow she captures, in the midst of the atrocities, the greater reality of our human interconnectedness. Everyone I’ve recommended this book to has thanked me for doing so.

They Were Like Family to Me: Stories

By Helen Maryles Shankman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked They Were Like Family to Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finalist for the 2017 Story Prize
Honorable Mention in the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for achievement in Jewish Literature

“An absolutely dazzling triumph…A singularly inventive collection” (Jewish Book Council) of linked stories set in a German-occupied town in Poland during World War II, where tales of myth and folklore meet the real-life monsters of the Nazi invasion.

1942. With the Nazi Party at the height of its monstrous power, Hitler’s SS fires up the new crematorium at Auschwitz and the occupying army empties Poland’s towns and cities of their Jewish citizens. As neighbor turns on neighbor and survival depends…


Tzili: The Story of a Life

By Aharon Appelfeld, Dalya Bilu (translator),

Book cover of Tzili: The Story of a Life

Why this book?

Appelfeld is considered one of Israel’s foremost writers. He writes fluidly in beautiful, spare, fable-like prose. Appelfeld himself was a child survivor who escaped a camp and hid in the countryside and woods, making his “faction” all the more authentic and powerful. The title character, Tzili, is a young Jewish girl who hides from the Germans in a country not specified (but is likely Ukraine). This novel brings to light the harsh conditions and horrors that “free” survivors faced, both during and after the war. 

Tzili: The Story of a Life

By Aharon Appelfeld, Dalya Bilu (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The youngest, least-favored member of an Eastern European Jewish family, Tzili is considered an embarrassment by her parents and older siblings. Her schooling has been a failure, she is simple and meek, and she seems more at home with the animals in the field than with people. And so when her panic-stricken family flees the encroaching Nazi armies, Tzili is left behind to fend for herself. At first seeking refuge with the local peasants, she is eventually forced to escape from them as well, and she takes to the forest, living a solitary existence until she is discovered by another…


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

By Tilar J. Mazzeo,

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

Why this book?

I can’t recall reading a more absorbing nonfiction book than this National Jewish Book Award Finalist. An astounding story of well-known Upstander Irena Sendler, who saved roughly 2,500 Jewish children in Poland at great personal cost. She survived capture and torture, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. While many films and biographies exist about Sendler, this one, heavily researched, gripping, and minutely detailed, is a must. Available also in a special edition for young adults.

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

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…


Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory

By Elizabeth Rosner,

Book cover of Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory

Why this book?

We should begin to focus as well on the aftermath of the Holocaust. In this acclaimed book, part history, part memoir, Rosner excels at quilting together a tragic story of trauma and recovery. While she explores her parents' history during the Holocaust, she weaves in other events such as 9/11, Hiroshima, and Syria. We learn about the study of epigenetics: that trauma not only affects emotions and thoughts, it invades physical bodies and is passed on to the next generation in our DNA. You won’t look at trauma the same way again.

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory

By Elizabeth Rosner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Survivor Café as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As featured on NPR and in The New York Times, Survivor Cafe is a bold work of nonfiction that examines the ways that survivors, witnesses, and post-war generations talk about and shape traumatic experiences.

As firsthand survivors of many of the twentieth century's most monumental events―the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Killing Fields―begin to pass away, Survivor Café addresses urgent questions: How do we carry those stories forward? How do we collectively ensure that the horrors of the past are not forgotten?

Elizabeth Rosner organizes her book around three trips with her father to Buchenwald concentration camp―in 1983, in 1995, and in…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Holocaust, church and state, and Jewish history?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Holocaust, church and state, and Jewish history.

The Holocaust Explore 203 books about the Holocaust
Church And State Explore 13 books about church and state
Jewish History Explore 306 books about Jewish history

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, The Inheritors, and My Sister's Mother if you like this list.