In Focus: Top 10 novels inspired by WWII/the Holocaust
I am fascinated by history and what we can learn about and from it. One period of history that continues to resonate today is World War II and the fall of the Nazi Regime, a time of incomparable international trauma at the hands of a cruel dictator. The experience of those affected lives on today through literature, in both fiction and non-fiction. I believe literature is what allows these experiences to become timeless, so that they are never forgotten and the lives that were lost will always be remembered. Read on for my top recommendations of books inspired by this period of time...
1. Tamar, Mal Peet
This is one of those books that stays with you for years after you turn the last page. Tamar follows a dual narrative in different eras, transitioning between the modern day and the period within the war when the Dutch Resistance was operating. Tamar is trying to unlock the mystery of her family's past, which leads both Tamar and the reader to understanding what happened when her Grandfather was serving in Holland. As well as offering an insight into how the Resistance movement operated in an attempt to overthrow the Nazi Regime, the plot is fast-paced and gripping so that you won't want to put it down. And, I still to this day claim that I have never read a better plot twist than the one that can be found in this book. I can't recommend this novel enough.
2. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
A true masterpiece, this novel follows Liesel Meminger, an avid reader, as she grows up in Nazi Germany. Told from the perspective of Death, it is born out of the burning of those books the Nazi Regime saw as dangerous, unworthy or contradictory to the values they were attempting to install across the world. I love Liesel's sense of rebellion as she sources books that are forbidden under the Regime and, if discovered, would lead her into unimaginable trouble. Zusak demands sympathy for his characters, especially as they are so young and vulnerable to the horrors that are unfolding in the world around them. I absorbed this book in a matter of days.
3. The Librarian of Auschwitz, Antonio Iturbe
Inspired by true events and experiences, this book follows fourteen-year-old Dita as she is imprisoned by the Nazis in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Dita is to take charge of the eight precious books the prisoners have managed to keep hidden from the guards, so that she becomes the secret librarian of Auschwitz. It opens your eyes to the horrors of the concentration camps but also to the endurance and strength of the human spirit as Dita clings to the hope of survival It is emotionally challenging, but also a truly insightful and gripping read.
4. Two Brothers, Ben Elton
Wow. What a novel. Again inspired by true events, Elton introduces us to twins Otto and Paulus, born into a Jewish family in Germany as the country's political landscape begins to change. Their story stretches from 1920 to 1956, and leads the reader through unpredictable and unanticipated turns. Your heart will bleed for the characters as their lives are turned upside down forever - this is an undeniable page-turner.
5. The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris
As with The Librarian of Auschwitz, this book is harrowing and offers direct insight into the life of Lale Sokolov as he becomes the Tattooist of the concentration camp he is entrapped in. Told in line with Sokolov's experiences, this account reminds us of how love will always threaten to destroy evil and suffering. Another life-affirming story that you will never forget.
6. Cilka’s Journey, Heather Morris
If you enjoy The Tattooist of Auschwitz, you will adore this novel. This is a truly heartbreaking tale, one that I continue to reflect on often due to the unimaginable suffering the protagonist, Cilka, endured during her time in both Auschwitz and Vorkuta. Perceived to be a Nazi conspirator following the liberation of the camp, Cilka is tragically taken to Siberia where she is forced to endure many years of slave labour. This is so emotionally charged that it is both impossible to forget. A really important read.
7. The Cut Out Girl, Bart van Es
I loved this read because it offers a different sort of account to what I had read previously, as we follow the author's personal journey of unlocking a Jewish girl’s experiences of growing up in the Netherlands during WWII. In order to protect her, Lien is taken from her family to adoptive parents. van Es, the grandson of the couple who looked after Lien, looks at the history behind Lien's life and why she suddenly became a part of the family they never wanted to remember. This is really interesting, and nothing like I have read before.
8. The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz, Jeremy Dronfield
I read this book recently and reviewed it on my blog (read the review here!). However, I had to put it on this list. It tells the story of an Austrian boy and his father who fall victim to the Nazi persecution of Jewish citizens in the 1930s and 1940s. It captures the strength of a father and son who face unimaginable suffering together, their survival driven by the knowledge that they cannot leave the other alone.
9. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
This was probably the start of my love of historical narratives. The book offers us direct reading of the diary kept by Anne Frank while she was in hiding for two years with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, before she was tragically found and taken to the concentration camps. I think it is Anne's age that makes the reality of her situation all the more sad, yet her diary entries are at the same time so uplifting despite the knowledge that they will remain unfinished. It really drives home the unnecessary and tragic nature of the loss of such a young life, possibly more than any of the other reads listed here achieve.
10. A Woman in Berlin, Anonymous
This was reviewed in Monday's blog post, so if you are interested in reading a more in-depth review of this book, you can find it here! Again, a truly remarkable read based on the diary entries of a young woman who is forced to face cruel abuse following the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945. As the Russians invaded Berlin, they were of the mind that, because Germany had taken so much from them, they were justified in taking it out on any surviving Germans they came across, particularly the women. This woman survived the war, yet suffered enormously once it was over.
What other 'In Focus' topics would people like to see? Comment below if there are any genres, periods or authors you would like recommendations for!