The best books about concentration camps

26 authors have picked their favorite books about concentration camps and why they recommend each book.

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Backing Hitler

By Robert Gellately,

Book cover of Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany

Contrary to popular belief, the Nazis did not rely on an omnipresent secret police force to win Germans’ cooperation. A skilled combination of fear, propaganda, and self-promotion alternatively cowed Germans and manufactured their consent for this regime. In the 1930s, ordinary Germans regarded the Nazis as restoring order to a chaotic society, and a flood of denunciations helped the Gestapo with its work. At the same time, the existence of the concentration camps was no secret to ordinary Germans.


Who am I?

Jay Geller is a professor of history and Judaic studies and has published five books on the experience of the Jews in twentieth-century Germany. He has worked with secondary school teachers, religious communities, and museums to develop programs on the Holocaust, Nazism, and dangers of intolerance and radicalism. He is a graduate of Princeton University and Yale University.


I wrote...

The Scholems: A Story of the German-Jewish Bourgeoisie from Emancipation to Destruction

By Jay Geller,

Book cover of The Scholems: A Story of the German-Jewish Bourgeoisie from Emancipation to Destruction

What is my book about?

The evocative and riveting stories of four brothers—Gershom the Zionist, Werner the Communist, Reinhold the nationalist, and Erich the liberal—weave together in The Scholems, a biography of an eminent middle-class Jewish Berlin family and a social history of the Jews in Germany in the decades leading up to World War II.

Ghost Soldiers

By Hampton Sides,

Book cover of Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission

I only had to read the headline to know this was the book for me. The Americans handpicked 121 soldiers to slip behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission seemed impossible; another reason I chose this book. It was to march thirty miles in rugged terrain, and at the end, rescue over 500 POWs, amongst them the last survivors of the Bataan Death March.

I recommend this book because it engrossed me from page one to the last. The realistic imagery depicting how the prisoners lived in the camp, how they bonded together, and survived despite starvation, tropical diseases, and unimaginable torture, made this an unforgettable book for me.


Who am I?

I am a Scottish writer, addicted to reading and writing historical fiction. Writing Historical novels is not a job but a passion for me. I have studied, read, and written about historical periods from William the Conqueror in the 11th century to the end of WW2, and many other periods in between. I continually research, looking for my next historical story, but it would take more than one lifetime for me to study all the great historical fiction and non-fiction books out there. As a genre, historical fiction is making a comeback, and I’m happy to be part of the Genre’s resurgence.


I wrote...

The German Half-Bloods: The Half-Bloods Trilogy, Book I

By Jana Petken,

Book cover of The German Half-Bloods: The Half-Bloods Trilogy, Book I

What is my book about?

Three Anglo-German brothers from Berlin must choose to fight for the Third Reich or Britain. What happens when loyalties split, and trust is broken? Love and betrayal leap off the pages in this story of the Vogels, a family torn apart by war and betrayal. Germany, September 1939... at the outbreak of War, Dieter Vogel and his family face catastrophic events and separation as each member embarks on their deadly paths towards survival, love, and freedom.

The Long Night

By Ernst Israel Bornstein,

Book cover of The Long Night: A True Story

The author, a keen observer of behaviour under appalling conditions, has an astonishingly wise and humane attitude that bears him through both internment and concentration camps. I have a personal interest in this book, and the writer, because I am the speaking partner of his daughter Noemie Lopian, and we talk at synagogues, schools, universities, and public events to ask for kindness, toleration, and understanding.


Who am I?

I am a Scottish writer who discovered at the age of 49 that my grandfather was an SS officer involved in the Holocaust. I wrote my book, A Nazi in the Family, to understand how a dark family secret could remain hidden for so long and I have spent the years since publication talking about my grandfather as an example of an ordinary man who turned to doing extraordinary evil.


I wrote...

A Nazi In The Family

By Derek Niemann,

Book cover of A Nazi In The Family

What is my book about?

The Niemann family - Karl, Minna and their four children - live in a quiet, suburban enclave. Every day Karl commutes to work, a business manager travelling around inspecting his "factories". In the evenings he returns home to life as a normal family man. Three years ago Derek Niemann, born and raised in Scotland, made the chilling discovery that his grandfather Karl had been an officer in the SS - and that his "business" used thousands of slave labourers in concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Derek had known little about the German side of his family, but now a lifetime of unsettling hints and clues began to fall into place. With the help of surviving relatives and hundreds of previously unknown family photographs, Derek uncovers the true story of what Karl did. A Nazi in the Family is an illuminating portrayal of how ordinary people can fall into the service of a monstrous regime.

KL

By Nikolaus Wachsmann,

Book cover of KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

To ensure we’ll never repeat the Holocaust, we must understand it. One of the most difficult books you may ever read, KL is a comprehensive and impressive history of the Nazis’ camp system. The New York Times called this nearly 900-page work by Nikolaus Wachsmann, a history professor at London University, a work of “prodigious scholarship.”

Time and again, when researching my own book for young readers, I turned to Wachsmann for nuanced detail, impeccable research, and a better understanding of some of the “choiceless choices” faced by Jewish men, women, and children. Not for the faint of heart, but a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives.


Who am I?

The books I’ve recommended here range from scholarship, young adult historical fiction, literary fiction, and a good spy mystery—all set in World War II. I’ve read widely in the field since I’ve written several nonfiction books for young readers and teens about World War II. Along with We Must Not Forget, these include Courage & Defiance, about the Danish resistance, Dive!, about the submarine war in the Pacific, D-Day: The World War II Invasion that Changed History, and We Had to Be Brave: Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport. I’m currently working on a book about a 1945 POW rescue in the Philippines.


I wrote...

We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance

By Deborah Hopkinson,

Book cover of We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance

What is my book about?

We Must Not Forget has received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus Reviews, which noted, “The stories of Jewish children and teens who survived against all odds are told in ways that readers will never forget.” A companion to my book, We Had to Be Brave, explores the true stories of those who did not escape the Nazis. The book is arranged by geography, with key dates and historical context to introduce each section, and links so readers can listen to some of the oral histories of survivors.

The Pink Triangle

By Richard Plant,

Book cover of The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals

Hitler had ambivalent feelings about gay men, but Heinrich Himmler did not. The SS leader spearheaded the Nazi persecution of homosexuality in an effort to root out a perceived corruption that he believed was incompatible with the hyper-masculine doctrine of Nazism. A direct response to a flourishing gay culture in the 1920s and the medical study of “sexology,” gay men were rounded up and forced to wear the pink triangle as a sign of what the Nazis called their “degeneracy.”


Who am I?

Jeffrey H. Jackson is a prolific author and award-winning Professor of History at Rhodes College. He has written several books about the history of Europe including Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910, and Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, CNN.com, TheHill.com, HistoryNewsNetwork.com, and in numerous other publications.


I wrote...

Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis

By Jeffrey H. Jackson,

Book cover of Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis

What is my book about?

Paper Bullets is the first book to tell the history of an audacious anti-Nazi campaign undertaken by an unlikely pair: two French women, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, who drew on their skills as Parisian avant-garde artists to write and distribute "paper bullets"--wicked insults against Hitler, calls to rebel, and subversive fictional dialogues designed to demoralize Nazi troops occupying their adopted home on the British Channel Island of Jersey. Devising their own PSYOPS campaign, they slipped their notes into soldier's pockets or tucked them inside newsstand magazines.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

By John Boyne,

Book cover of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Berlin, 1942: Two young boys encounter the best and worst of humanity during the Holocaust in this powerful book. Here Bruno meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences. This reminds me of the day when my own best friend, Dieter, was fatally shot by a Spitfire while standing just two feet away from me, a scene featured on the cover of my book.


Who am I?

Heinz Kohler was born in Berlin, Germany, where he grew up before and during World War II. By the war's end, he found himself in rural East Germany and spent years watching the Nazi tyranny give way to a Communist one. Since 1961, he taught economics at Amherst College, while also logging thousands of flight hours as a commercial pilot. These numerous experiences come to life in a powerful tale of war and its aftermath. As David R. Mayhew, Yale University Sterling Professor of Political Science, put it “In novelistic form, this is a riveting child’s-eye account of growing up in Germany under the Nazis and then the Russians. Laced with extraordinary photos and posters from these times, it combines memory with testimony.”


I wrote...

My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War

By Heinz Kohler,

Book cover of My Name Was Five: A Novel of the Second World War

What is my book about?

When a private plane crashes in Florida in 1991, the surviving pilot makes the strangest of remarks. “It was World War II,” he says. The National Transportation Safety Board attributes the accident to a collision with birds, but one stubborn investigator insists on going further. Before long, his inquiry reveals how the pilot’s past had trailed him on his last flight and vividly brings to life a terrifying slice of history–the story of a German boy who grows up in Berlin before, during, and after the Second World War; sadistic teachers just call him FiveThe boy’s father, an opponent of the Nazis, ends up in a concentration camp and later in a penal regiment that marches through Russian minefields to clear the way for regular troops. In contrast, one of the boy’s uncles is a fervent Nazi in charge of cleansing Hitler’s capital of every last Jew; another uncle revels in the governance of Paris. A favorite aunt, a confidential secretary at the Gestapo, is horrified by all she knows about the “final solution.” The boy’s mother is the one who keeps him sane when Spitfire guns kill his best friend standing right next to him on a bridge. But worse is to come: bombings and firestorms, the senseless sacrifice of children and old men in the battle of Berlin, the Soviet occupation, along with rape, murder, hunger, and disease, and then the emergence of a new kind of tyranny yet. In the end, we come upon an unexpected twist that shows how the consequences of war can emerge decades later and in faraway places.

The Harmonica

By Tony Johnston, Ron Mazellan (illustrator),

Book cover of The Harmonica

This picture book was inspired by a true story about Henryk, a Jewish boy in WWII Poland. Henryk’s family loved music and enjoyed singing together. They couldn’t afford a piano, so Henryk learned to play Schubert on the harmonica his father had given him. When his parents were arrested by the Nazis, Henryk was deported to Dyhernfurth concentration camp. A Nazi guard heard him playing the harmonica and ordered the boy to play for him. Henryk didn’t want to play for the guard, but he had no choice. Then he found out that he also had another, more important audience: his fellow inmates could hear him play. His music was a gift for them, providing tremendous comfort during a time of despair. 

The text is poetic and powerful, and the illustrations, done in a dark palette, are haunting and exquisite.


Who am I?

I’m the author/illustrator of over 20 books for children, ranging from whimsical fiction about anthropomorphic cats and rambunctious dogs to serious nonfiction about hidden children, unusual heroes and surprising spies of WWII and the Holocaust. Several of my nonfiction books, including The Grand Mosque of Paris, were created in collaboration.


I wrote...

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust

By Deborah Durland DeSaix, Karen Gray Ruelle,

Book cover of The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust

What is my book about?

This is a true story that nobody knows about, the hidden history of how the Muslim community of the Grand Mosque of Paris helped to save the lives of Jews and others fleeing from the Nazis. It includes spies and disguises, secret underground passages, and action in the face of grave danger. When my co-author and I discovered this inspiring story of compassion and courage, we knew it needed to be told, so we embarked on years of research to find the truth. And as illustrators, we were inspired by the visual splendor of the mosque, with its colorful mosaic patterns, intricate woodwork, and graceful architecture. It was a joy to paint the illustrations and an honor to unearth this important story and share it with the world.

Night

By Elie Wiesel, Marion Wiesel (translator),

Book cover of Night

I have used Night in teaching the Holocaust with great results. The book provides us with the full scope of the steps from freedom to arrest, to ghettoization, to deportation to surviving the death camps to liberation. The book challenges the reader to raise important moral questions linked to belief in God, and what one does to survive, including difficult choices made under extreme duress, such as sharing a slice of bread with a parent.


Who am I?

Having lost relatives in the Holocaust, and also a scholar of twentieth-century history, I have a special interest in attempting to understand how Germany turned from one of the most literate and advanced countries into the barbarism we call Nazi Germany. In the course of teaching and writing for the past  50 years, I have written/edited some nine books on modern Jewish history-including four on the Holocaust and hundreds of articles and reviews in such publications as Virginia Quarterly, Tablet, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, The Forward, Midstream, Commonweal, Congress Monthly, Choice, among many other publications.


I wrote...

Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust

By Jack R. Fischel,

Book cover of Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust

What is my book about?

 My book details a useful compilation of the name of perpetrators, countries, terminology, victims, and bystanders who were involved in making the Holocaust possible It also includes a glossary and extensive bibliography.

Fania's Heart

By Anne Renaud, Richard Rudnicki (illustrator),

Book cover of Fania's Heart

For many who have lived through war and conflict, traumatic memories are often kept buried to bury the painful memories. In Fania’s Heart, there are secrets of the tattooed number on Sorale’s mother’s arm. And there are secrets of why her mother had no sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. This book tells the true story of the crafting of a wonderful gift, created against all odds, within the confines of a prison camp. Curiosity about this secretive gift will spark conversations that are difficult, but necessary to remind younger generations of the courage it takes to survive atrocities.

Who am I?

I am an author, physician, mother of three, and an advocate for social justice in education. I came to Canada as a refugee from the Vietnam war when I was a young child. I love to write children's stories that convey the humanity in our lives. My books have been shortlisted for the Alberta Literary Award, Red Maple Award, and Blue Spruce Award.


I wrote...

Ten Cents a Pound

By Nhung N. Tran-Davies, Josée Bisaillon (illustrator),

Book cover of Ten Cents a Pound

What is my book about?

Ten Cents A Pound is about a young girl who is torn by her desire to stay home with her family and the familiarity of their village, and her desire to go to school and discover the world beyond the mountains that surround them. Every time the girl insists that she will stay, her mother repeats that she must go—that there is more to life than labor in the coffee fields. Their loving exchange reveals the struggles and sacrifices that they will both have to make for the sake of the young girl’s future.

I feel this book is inspiring conversations about the importance of education and the sacrifices our parents make.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

By Tadeusz Borowski,

Book cover of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

The most engaging, genuine, soul-crushing, holocaust/concentration camp book I’ve ever read and I’ve read them all. And read his bio, too. Crisp, clear writing allows all the horror of the concentration camp to roll over your soul. You have nowhere to hide when you read this book—the honesty is pure and brutal. Yet, the soulful fallout never really leaves you fully crushed—otherwise, you would never feel the agony of humanity over and over again.


Who am I?

I read a lot of first-person books because I write a lot of 1st person books. I was a creative writing teacher for twenty years and I wanted my students to ‘own’ their material—to write about what they saw and felt and empathized with and loved and feared. These book recommendations below are only a handful of immensely brilliant books that have strong character/narrator voices that put you inside the skin of the narrator. These are the books that are recklessly beautiful and ruthlessly genuine-- and by example teach you how to write honestly and how to capture your own readers.


I wrote...

Hole in My Life

By Jack Gantos,

Book cover of Hole in My Life

What is my book about?

When I was in high school I was a smart kid, a reader, and I lived in a welfare rooming house in Florida. I worked in a grocery store. I had great friends and I led a fast life. I graduated and moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. To make money on the side I sold drugs. Then I joined a team of British smugglers and sailed a yacht with a ton of hashish to new york city. It was a glorious sailing adventure.

But it didn’t work out as well as I had imagined I wanted it to, however. I was caught and I was given six years in prison. This book is my personal story about how reading books saved my life…and how I became a writer.

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