The best WWII memoirs and stories about ordinary people caught in the horror of war

Gabrielle Robinson Author Of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past
By Gabrielle Robinson

The Books I Picked & Why

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

By Anonymous, Philip Boehm

Book cover of A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City

Why this book?

Just like Api’s diary, A Woman in Berlin begins on April 20, 1945, and she, too, writes daily to maintain her sanity in a world of chaos and death. The author, who wanted to remain anonymous, gives a clear-eyed perspective of a woman alone, trapped in Berlin, fighting starvation and the terrors of Soviet invasion. For women above all this meant rape. They tried to hide in the ruins, make themselves look old, dress up as men. Nevertheless, Soviet soldiers raped over 100,000 women. I read in Api’s diary that Berlin doctors soon began to perform then illegal abortions for victims who begged them for one. 

The author’s unflinching and courageous account is “among the most chilling indictments of war I have ever read” (Arundhati Roy).


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When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father's War and What Remains

By Ariana Neumann

Book cover of When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father's War and What Remains

Why this book?

When Time Stopped is a family saga of love and self-sacrifice and also a detective thriller, both under the shadow of Nazi persecution. Ariana grew up in Caracas and except for her father’s nightmares her family was unaware of the deep wounds the war had left on the young man. After his death, a box of documents starts her on a harrowing journey into his past. It begins in Prague from where Hans’ parents were transported to Terezin. The loving correspondence with their two sons haunts me still. This beautifully written and deeply moving story is a reminder that it takes generations for the wounds of war to heal, something I have experienced from “the other side.”


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The Fall of Berlin 1945

By Antony Beevor

Book cover of The Fall of Berlin 1945

Why this book?

I quote Beevor in my memoir because he helped me understand both the broad historical context of the city’s last days and the experiences of ordinary people caught in it. Beevor combines tireless research with consummate storytelling. This is his eerie description of the night of April 29, a terrifying date also for my grandfather: “the flames in bombarded buildings cast strange shadows on the otherwise dark streets. The soot and dust in the air made it almost unbreathable. From time to time there was the thunder of masonry collapsing. And to add to this terrifying effect, searchlight beams moved around above, searching a night sky where the Luftwaffe had ceased to exist.”


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Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder

Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Why this book?

For our own humanity, we need to read Bloodlands. Snyder analyzes the record of the 14 million civilians murdered by both Hitler and Stalin. As a historian, he brings a new perspective to the different motives for their killing politics in labor camps, death camps, deliberate starvation, and planned genocide. However, he never loses sight of each victim’s humanity. “Each of the living bore a name…Each of the dead became a number.” He names and gives details of the lives and deaths of innocent children, women, and men in Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, the Baltic states, and concludes that “it is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.”


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Unbroken: An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive

By Laura Hillenbrand

Book cover of Unbroken: An Olympian's Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive

Why this book?

I wanted to end with an uplifting story of endurance and reconciliation from the Eastern theater of WWII. After his bomber plane crashed in the Pacific, Louie Zamperini, an American distance runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympiad, managed to survive on a raft for a record 47 days, drifting over 2,000 miles when, skeletal and near death, he is caught by the Japanese and sent to a brutal prisoner of war camp. 

Hillenbrand is a master storyteller who has uncovered amazing details of Louie’s life. I am in awe of his courage, inspired by his resilience of both body and spirit, and overwhelmed by his ability to heal and forgive. Not surprisingly, Unbroken was made into a movie.


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