The best books about Poland

10 authors have picked their favorite books about Poland and why they recommend each book.

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Chasing Portraits

By Elizabeth Rynecki,

Book cover of Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy

Rynecki’s great-grandfather, Moshe, was a painter who documented moments of Jewish life in the interwar years: women sewing, children playing, wedding celebrations, men in prayer. When WWII broke out Moshe’s paintings were hidden, and afterward only a fraction were recovered. In this book, Rynecki recounted her decades-long quest to locate and archive the lost artwork. It’s a memoir about the lengths one will go to to ensure a lost family legacy will never be forgotten.


Who am I?

Carolyn Porter is a graphic designer, type designer, and unapologetic lover of old handwriting. “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and The Search for One Man’s Fate” recounts Porter’s obsessive search to learn about Marcel Heuzé, a French forced laborer who mailed love letters to his wife and daughters from a Nazi labor camp in Berlin—letters Porter found 60 years later at an antique store in Minnesota. Porter’s book was awarded gold medals from Independent Publisher and The Military Writers Society of America, and was a finalist for a 2018 Minnesota Book Award.


I wrote...

Marcel's Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man's Fate

By Carolyn Porter,

Book cover of Marcel's Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man's Fate

What is my book about?

A graphic designer's search for inspiration leads to a cache of letters and the mystery of one man's fate during World War II. Seeking inspiration for a new font design in an antique store in small-town Stillwater, Minnesota, graphic designer Carolyn Porter stumbled across a bundle of letters and was immediately drawn to their beautifully expressive pen-and-ink handwriting. She could not read the letters--they were in French--but she noticed all of them had been signed by a man named Marcel and mailed from Berlin to his family in France during the middle of World War II. As Carolyn grappled with designing the font, she decided to have one of Marcel's letters translated. Reading words of love combined with testimony of survival inside a labor camp transformed Carolyn's curiosity into an obsession to find out whether he ever returned to his beloved wife and daughters after the war.

The Volunteer

By Jack Fairweather,

Book cover of The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz

Witold Pilecki risked everything for his country. As a Polish resistance fighter he volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in September 1940. There, he helped forge a Polish underground resistance of hundreds of prisoners. Despite torture, hunger, and conditions far worse than anyone imagined, he remained in the camp for two-and-a-half years by choice. His well-documented reports on Auschwitz in early 1941 were the first ones sent out of the camp. His plea? Destroy the camp before it grew worse.

Jack Fairweather wrote a definitive account that is thoroughly researched, and an engaging read. The world ignored Pilecki’s reports during the war. After the war, Russian communists declared Pilecki and his family enemies of the state. Pilecki’s story is well-known and revered in Poland. His valor and sacrifice deserve worldwide recognition.


Who am I?

I am an author, lifelong history geek, and relentlessly curious about finding unknown stories. In 2002 I met Henry Zguda, an eighty-five-year-old Polish Catholic who survived three years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. He lived a mile from my house. Intrigued, I soon offered to write his incredible story. I am not Polish and knew little of Poland or Polish history when I began. This led to over ten years of research on Poland, World War II, and the Holocaust. My friendship with Henry changed the direction of my life and gave me keen insight into the plight of Poles, both Jewish and Christian, during World War II. Thousands of memoirs and books exist on the Holocaust. I believe the inspiring stories of Poles and other victims of Hitler and Stalin deserve equally widespread recognition.


I wrote...

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

By Katrina Shawver,

Book cover of Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

What is my book about?

Poland, 1942. Henry Zguda was at home in the water. But one night in May, the SS arrested the celebrated competitive swimmer in Kraków for the sole crime of being Polish. Two weeks later, he was far from the life he’d known, interred as political prisoner #39551 at Auschwitz.

Told through a series of heartfelt conversations with the author, Henry recounts his gut-wrenching story of miraculous survival and of refusing to succumb, even amidst the most brutal of horrors. Interwoven with carefully constructed historical research and evidence, this powerful account of a Christian persecuted by Nazis is a gripping tale of love, loss, and loyalty that sheds light on some of the lesser-known evils of the Holocaust. He witnessed and lived through the absolute worst of humanity, yet preferred to look ahead rather than behind.

My Sister's Mother

By Donna Solecka Urbikas,

Book cover of My Sister's Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin's Siberia

My Sister’s Mother is a family memoir set against the backdrop of forced evictions and deportations of Poles to forced labor camps in frozen Siberia. Russia invaded Poland two weeks after Germany did, and the two powers divided Poland between their countries. Soviet communists murdered thousands of Polish citizens, Polish military, and in 1940 deported hundreds of thousands of civilian Poles, in freezing cattle cars, to forced labor camps in Siberia.

Urbikas’ mother and older sister faced impossible circumstances imposed by Stalin’s brutal policies against Poles. The core theme focuses on motherhood, the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and how far a woman will go to survive and protect her child. Then, the story transitions into the epilogue of war for thousands of Poles: life in a displaced persons camp and growing up with inherited trauma and the challenges common to first-generation Polish immigrants.


Who am I?

I am an author, lifelong history geek, and relentlessly curious about finding unknown stories. In 2002 I met Henry Zguda, an eighty-five-year-old Polish Catholic who survived three years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. He lived a mile from my house. Intrigued, I soon offered to write his incredible story. I am not Polish and knew little of Poland or Polish history when I began. This led to over ten years of research on Poland, World War II, and the Holocaust. My friendship with Henry changed the direction of my life and gave me keen insight into the plight of Poles, both Jewish and Christian, during World War II. Thousands of memoirs and books exist on the Holocaust. I believe the inspiring stories of Poles and other victims of Hitler and Stalin deserve equally widespread recognition.


I wrote...

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

By Katrina Shawver,

Book cover of Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

What is my book about?

Poland, 1942. Henry Zguda was at home in the water. But one night in May, the SS arrested the celebrated competitive swimmer in Kraków for the sole crime of being Polish. Two weeks later, he was far from the life he’d known, interred as political prisoner #39551 at Auschwitz.

Told through a series of heartfelt conversations with the author, Henry recounts his gut-wrenching story of miraculous survival and of refusing to succumb, even amidst the most brutal of horrors. Interwoven with carefully constructed historical research and evidence, this powerful account of a Christian persecuted by Nazis is a gripping tale of love, loss, and loyalty that sheds light on some of the lesser-known evils of the Holocaust. He witnessed and lived through the absolute worst of humanity, yet preferred to look ahead rather than behind.

The Devil's Chain

By Keely Stauter-Halsted,

Book cover of The Devil's Chain: Prostitution and Social Control in Partitioned Poland

Who would have thought that late-nineteenth-century Poles’ preoccupation with the problem of prostitution could reveal so much about the Polish mindset? Concerns over the sex industry arose during a period of rapid change when there was no Polish state. Poles voiced their concerns about their nation’s future—and their womenfolk. A historian at the height of her powers, Keely Stauter-Halsted skillfully shows how debates on prostitution and an obsession with the bodies of impoverished women reflected a variety of visions of a future Poland.

Who am I?

I am a Harvard-trained historian of Central and Eastern Europe who focuses primarily on Poland. Although I am of Polish descent, my interest in Polish history blossomed during my first visits to the country in the 1980s. My initial curiosity quickly turned into a passion for Poland’s rich and varied past. Poles, who put great stock in their history, seem to have liked my books: in 2014 I was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. The books on Poland listed below, all by outstanding female historians, only scratch the surface of what is truly a rich field. Enjoy!


I wrote...

Poland: The First Thousand Years

By Patrice M. Dabrowski,

Book cover of Poland: The First Thousand Years

What is my book about?

Poland: The First Thousand Years is a lively and accessible introduction to Polish history, presented from its medieval beginnings up to the present.

My book is a sweeping account designed to amplify major figures, moments, milestones, and turning points in Polish history. These include important battles and illustrious individuals, alliances forged by marriages and choices of religious denomination, and meditations on the likes of the Polish battle slogan "for our freedom and yours" that resounded during the Polish fight for independence in the long 19th century and echoed in the Solidarity period of the late 20th century.

Kieslowski on Kieslowski

By Krzysztof Kieslowski,

Book cover of Kieslowski on Kieslowski

In contrast to Hollywood, Krzysztof Kieslowski worked under Polish Communism for the first 20 years of his career, before he became better known in the West with the Three Colours Trilogy. In Poland, it wasn’t the box office that determined a filmmaker’s fate but what the state censors thought. His film Blind Chance wasn’t released for six years because it suggested that a person’s political affiliation – whether they become a dissident or party member – was up to, well, blind chance. This is a wonderfully thoughtful book not only about film-making, but working under Communism, what it is to be a creative artist, and, if I may, life.

Who am I?

I’ve always loved movies. In my 20s, I went to film school – perhaps you can still find a couple of the short films I wrote with animator Matthew Hood on Vimeo (Hourglass and Metalstasis) – and I worked a little in the UK film industry reading scripts for Film4, among others. I’ve also interviewed filmmakers, including Nicolas Winding Refn, Christopher Hampton, Life of Brian producer John Goldstone and editor Anne V. Coates. And I’ve always found a romance, despite the seedy aspects, of Tinseltown being developed out in Hollywoodland, a place of orange groves and pepper trees where people from the Midwest went to retire in the sun.   


I wrote...

Dark History of Hollywood: A century of greed, corruption and scandal behind the movies (Dark Histories)

By Kieron Connolly,

Book cover of Dark History of Hollywood: A century of greed, corruption and scandal behind the movies (Dark Histories)

What is my book about?

In the century since it produced its first films, Hollywood has presented itself as the glamorous home to the beautiful and talented. But there has always been a dark side to Tinseltown. Right from the beginning, the Dream Factory created a hothouse of excess – too much money, adulation, expectation, and ego. Some actors would trade sex in the, often vain, hope of career advancement, while mobsters muscled in on the unions and extorted the studios, whose heads kept close ties to the police and the Press. 

From the movie moguls to the corporations that run the studios today, from drug addictions to witch-hunts, Dark History of Hollywood is the story of murder and suicide, ambition and betrayal, and how money can make almost everyone compromise.

The Street of Crocodiles

By Bruno Schulz, Celina Wieniewska (translator),

Book cover of The Street of Crocodiles

Simply put: the writing is magnificent. Beautiful, poetic, surprising, surreal, and yet exceptionally real. It’s a book of short stories that reads like a novel. Set in Poland during WWII. Schulz was a genius at capturing the world of his Nazi-occupied town and all who lived there. This book exists as if it were its own universe in a glass orb. It’s a “push-pull” read: you want to live Schulz’s life and you want to avoid it in equal measures.


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.

God's Playground

By Norman Davies,

Book cover of God's Playground: A History of Poland: The Origins to 1795, Vol. 1

This is a provocative book. Its very title suggests how difficult it is to understand Polish history than other that a divine joke. Yet his scholarship is excellent and his insights enlightening.

This is especially true for the first volume, which deals with the emergence of the Polish kingdom from rude barbarism to a political and cultural force so powerful that, after its union with Lithuania, dominated East Central Europe for generations. The total collapse of the kingdom in the 18th century—largely to defects in the constitution that allowed foreign interference in the election of the king—has blinded us to what Poland achieved in those forgotten centuries.


Who am I?

I became enthusiastic about the history of the Baltics when my dissertation advisor persuaded me to use my language training in German and Russian to test the American Frontier Theory in the Baltic region. None of the various theories were applicable, but I earned a Ph.D. anyway. Later I taught in Italy, Yugoslavia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic. I've written a number of books and won a Fulbright Hays grant, the Dr. Arthur Puksow Foundation prize, the Vitols Prize, and others. I retired in 2017 after fifty-one years of university and college teaching, but I would still be teaching if my hearing had not deteriorated to the point that I could not make out what shy students were saying. 


I wrote...

Teutonic Knights: A Military History

By William L. Urban,

Book cover of Teutonic Knights: A Military History

What is my book about?

This has proven far more successful than I expected. It was a History Book Club selection in 2003, then translated into Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Swedish, Hungarian, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese. Its central story is the crusade from Prussia and Livonia against Lithuanian paganism and Russian Orthodox rivals. Stories from contemporary chronicles are enhanced by wide reading of documents, articles, and modern histories.

The Rise of the Polish Monarchy

By Paul W Knoll,

Book cover of The Rise of the Polish Monarchy: Piast Poland in East Central Europe, 1320-1370

The history of the Baltic Crusade cannot be understood in isolation from the Polish kingdom. This is the era when Poland recovers from the disasters begun by the Mongol invasions of the 1240s and begins its own eastward expansion.

As the title indicates, this is really the story of Casimir III, whose father arranged a Lithuanian marriage that brought peace on the eastern frontiers and later allowed him to expand toward Rus’ (especially Ukraine) when the minor states there collapsed. Casimir succeeded in everything except siring a legitimate male heir, even though that was the one task expected of every monarch in this era. He did leave behind a flourishing state, a powerful church, and a national goal of driving back those Germans (especially the Teutonic Knights) who had made great inroads into areas claimed as the national patrimony.


Who am I?

I became enthusiastic about the history of the Baltics when my dissertation advisor persuaded me to use my language training in German and Russian to test the American Frontier Theory in the Baltic region. None of the various theories were applicable, but I earned a Ph.D. anyway. Later I taught in Italy, Yugoslavia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic. I've written a number of books and won a Fulbright Hays grant, the Dr. Arthur Puksow Foundation prize, the Vitols Prize, and others. I retired in 2017 after fifty-one years of university and college teaching, but I would still be teaching if my hearing had not deteriorated to the point that I could not make out what shy students were saying. 


I wrote...

Teutonic Knights: A Military History

By William L. Urban,

Book cover of Teutonic Knights: A Military History

What is my book about?

This has proven far more successful than I expected. It was a History Book Club selection in 2003, then translated into Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Swedish, Hungarian, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese. Its central story is the crusade from Prussia and Livonia against Lithuanian paganism and Russian Orthodox rivals. Stories from contemporary chronicles are enhanced by wide reading of documents, articles, and modern histories.

The Books of Jacob

By Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft (translator),

Book cover of The Books of Jacob

Another book of epic ambition but an unlikely subject: a messianic Jewish religious leader in 18th-century Poland.  The author’s prodigious research fuses with her writer’s ability to bring individuals as well as the movement to life.  This historical fiction lacks Grossman’s eyewitness foundations but vividly captures the values and lifestyles of its central figure, Jacob Frank, and his avid followers against the background of Catholic Poland and Ottoman Islam and will challenge modern readers with a vanished world of values and actions. 


Who am I?

A retired professor, an art historian who taught at Berkeley, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania. Since my main interest is the emergence of Europe from the late Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period around 1500, I naturally gravitate to non-fiction books that engage with the shifting interests and values of that era, and my own books include similar efforts to discuss visual art in relation to religion, literature, politics, and wider contemporary cultural movements. Among my own books I would cite: Rubens, Velázquez, and the King of Spain (with Aneta Georgievska-Shine); Europe Views the World, 1500-1700; and the forthcoming Art and Dis-Illusion in the Long Sixteenth Century.


I wrote...

Europe Views the World, 1500-1700

By Larry Silver,

Book cover of Europe Views the World, 1500-1700

What is my book about?

Europe Views the World examines the wide diversity of images that Europeans produced to represent the wide variety of peoples and places around the globe during and after the so-called 'Age of Exploration.' Beginning with the medieval imagery of Europe’s imagined alien races, and with an emphasis on the artists of Northern Europe, Larry Silver takes the reader on a tour across continents, from the Americas to Africa and Asia. Encompassing works such as prints, paintings, maps, tapestries, and sculptural objects, this book addresses the overall question of an emerging European self-definition through the evidence of visual culture, however biased, about the wider world in its component parts. 

The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union 1385-1569

By Robert I. Frost,

Book cover of The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union 1385-1569: Volume I

The first volume of Robert Frost’s trilogy is a superbly researched account and explanation of how two very different realmsthe Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuaniacame together to forge a shared Commonwealth that covered most of east-central Europe. While it supports republican ideas of liberty serving the common good, it steers an impartial course between rival nationalist narratives and offers important lessons for the making and maintenance of unions between states and communities.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by Central and Eastern Europe all of my adult life. Many cruises along the Danube and around the Baltic Sea have allowed me to see the stunning best of the region. Since the early 1990s, I’ve taught the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Russian Empire to a generation of students. Professor of Polish-Lithuanian History at University College London since 2013, my next challenge is to promote the history of Poland to allcomers via the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, the wonderful city which is my home.


I wrote...

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame

By Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski,

Book cover of The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame

What is my book about?

I tell the compelling story of the last decades of one of Europe’s largest and least understood polities: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Drawing on the latest research, I explain its turbulent path to destruction by the neighbouring powers: Russia, Prussia, and Austria. But far from seeing the Commonwealth as a failed state, I show the ways in which it reformed itself, drawing on its own civic values and the ideas of the Enlightenment. All too briefly, the Commonwealth threw off the stranglehold of Russia and regained its sovereignty, and on May 3, 1791 it gave itself a modern Constitution, fit for the nineteenth century.

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