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

Why am I passionate about this?

In 1945 my mother, grandmother, and myself, aged two and a half, fled Berlin after bombs had destroyed our apartment. My Austrian father had been killed in 1943; only my grandfather, a doctor, stayed behind. Yet as I grew up there was silence about the recent past. When I studied drama, earning a PhD from the University of London, I did not think about this either. Then I discovered my grandfather’s diaries and finally felt compelled to face my past. I have published 8 books and some 40 articles. My twin passions are writing about the impact of history on our lives and helping others tell their stories.


I wrote...

Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

By Gabrielle Robinson,

Book cover of Api's Berlin Diaries: My Quest to Understand My Grandfather's Nazi Past

What is my book about?

After my mother’s death, I found my beloved grandfather’s diaries written in Berlin 1945—only to discover that Api had been a Nazi. 

It took me years to face my past and write about this. My memoir follows Api, a doctor, into medical cellars without water or light while the Red Army’s artillery shells exploded every five seconds in a city already 90% destroyed by bombs. He himself was hungry, sick, and often homeless, the diary, written as letters to us, his only refuge. As I retrace Api’s steps in today’s Berlin searching for answers to why he became a Nazi, I am flooded by memories of the joy and security he brought into my life after the war.

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The books I picked & why

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

Gabrielle Robinson Why did I love 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).

By Anonymous, Philip Boehm (translator),

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Woman in Berlin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. "With bald honesty and brutal lyricism" (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. "Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity" (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the…


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

Gabrielle Robinson Why did I love 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.”

By Ariana Neumann,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this astonishing story that “reads like a thriller and is so, so timely” (BuzzFeed) Ariana Neumann dives into the secrets of her father’s past: “Like Anne Frank’s diary, it offers a story that needs to be told and heard” (Booklist, starred review).

In 1941, the first Neumann family member was taken by the Nazis, arrested in German-occupied Czechoslovakia for bathing in a stretch of river forbidden to Jews. He was transported to Auschwitz. Eighteen days later his prisoner number was entered into the morgue book.

Of thirty-four Neumann family members, twenty-five were murdered by the Nazis. One of the…


Book cover of The Fall of Berlin 1945

Gabrielle Robinson Why did I love 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.”

By Antony Beevor,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Fall of Berlin 1945 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A tale drenched in drama and blood, heroism and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal."-Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

The Red Army had much to avenge when it finally reached the frontiers of the Third Reich in January 1945. Frenzied by their terrible experiences with Wehrmacht and SS brutality, they wreaked havoc-tanks crushing refugee columns, mass rape, pillage, and unimaginable destruction. Hundreds of thousands of women and children froze to death or were massacred; more than seven million fled westward from the fury of the Red Army. It was the most terrifying example of fire and sword ever known.

Antony Beevor, renowned…


Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Gabrielle Robinson Why did I love 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.”

By Timothy Snyder,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Americans call the Second World War "the Good War." But before it even began, America's ally Stalin had killed millions of his own citizens-and kept killing them during and after the war. Before Hitler was defeated, he had murdered six million Jews and nearly as many other Europeans. At war's end, German and Soviet killing sites fell behind the Iron Curtain, leaving the history of mass killing in darkness.
?
Assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, Bloodlands is a new kind of European history, presenting the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of…


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

Gabrielle Robinson Why did I love 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.

By Laura Hillenbrand,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Unbroken as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

In this captivating and lavishly illustrated young adult edition of her award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller, Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of a former Olympian's courage, cunning, and fortitude following his plane crash in enemy territory. This adaptation of Unbroken introduces a new generation to one of history's most thrilling survival epics. 

On a May afternoon in 1943, an American military plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the…


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Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

Victoria Golden Author Of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

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What is my book about?

Four years old and homeless, William Walters boarded one of the last American Orphan Trains in 1930 and embarked on an astonishing quest through nine decades of U.S. and world history.

For 75 years, the Orphan Trains had transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West, sometimes providing loving new families, other times delivering kids into nightmares. Taken by a cruel New Mexico couple, William faced a terrible trial, but his strength and resilience carried him forward into unforgettable adventures.

Whether escaping his abusers, jumping freights as a preteen during the Great Depression, or infiltrating Japanese-held islands as a teenage Marine during WWII, William’s unique path paralleled the tumult of the twentieth century—and personified the American dream.

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What is this book about?

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From 1854 to the early 1930s, the American Orphan Trains transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West. Unfortunately, families waiting for the trains weren’t always dreams come true—many times they were nightmares.

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