Holocaust reading for post-millenials

Essential books to help Jewish young people be Shoah-literate.

Two boys hug in front of the main railway building of the former Nazi death camp Birkenau (Auschwitz II) during the 'March of the Living' in Oswiecim, Poland (photo credit: KATARINA STOLTZ/ REUTERS)
Two boys hug in front of the main railway building of the former Nazi death camp Birkenau (Auschwitz II) during the 'March of the Living' in Oswiecim, Poland
For many now in their early twenties, a cohort the Pew Research Center labels post-Millennials, Hitler’s destruction of European Jewry must seem only slightly less remote historically than the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. While social media arguably drains the time and shortens the attention span of those born after 1997, the good news is that young people, especially college graduates, still do read. However, this first generation for whom the smartphone has always existed has a different way of consuming news, information and probably history than previous generations.
Though no one wants young people to anchor their Jewish identity exclusively in the Holocaust, the fate of the Jews of Europe between roughly 1933 and 1945 is integral to the contemporary Jewish experience. And it is perhaps the final commonality or universal bond for a Jewish world that is at constant odds over religion, social mores, politics and Israel. Post-Millennials must come to their own conclusions about how and why the Holocaust matters, about the lesson of a world without a Jewish national homeland.
They must consider what makes the Holocaust unique in the annals of genocide that ranges from the enslavement of Africans in America, to the Darfur, Rwanda and Cambodia massacres. How, if at all, should they as Jews set off Hitler from the other colossal genocidal monsters of the 20th century, Stalin and Mao? Where should they turn for answers to gain a basic literacy about the Shoah?
For some ideas, The Jerusalem Report turned to an eclectic group of scholars and educators. Here are their recommendations:
Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Night by Elie Wiesel takes us on a harrowing journey into the darkest places of humanity. Night makes the Holocaust very human and very hard to forget.
Anne Frank’s Diary is not so much about the events of the Holocaust as about the impact of the Holocaust. This talented young girl reminds us that “six million” does not begin to help us grasp the magnitude of loss for the Jewish people.
Who Will Write Our History? by Samuel Kassow is an extraordinary tale of Jewish resistance and resilience, and a message to future generations about our responsibilities to memory, history and humanity.
Why by Peter Hayes is a very accessible summary of the great questions raised by the Holocaust. Anyone who wants a general understanding of what happened and why, this book is it. Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning challenges our assumptions about human nature and helps us understand why the Holocaust was possible, and why genocide will always be possible.
Elie Wiesel's Night featured on the must-read list of many of the experts approached by the Report (REUTERS)Elie Wiesel's Night featured on the must-read list of many of the experts approached by the Report (REUTERS)
John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope and director of the Science and Human Dimension Project, Jesus College, Cambridge, UK: I was 23 years of age, in 1963, and a student at the university of Oxford when I read William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer was a journalist rather than an academic historian, but he managed within that book to cover the entire ground of the Nazi era in an accessible easily readable manner. It changed my life. His coverage of the death camps occurs toward the end of the book: it is terse but covers the entire terrifying ground. It is still a valid book for any young student who wishes to gain an overview of the Nazi era.
I would then recommend Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Truce as follow ups, in the single volume edition, as it provides an authentic, documentation of the horror at first hand.
Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom: In all honesty the only book I would recommend is Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning. I believe it to be a fundamental work that every human being should read as it presents the nature of our fundamental freedom in the truest and most penetrating light. Frankl uses his experience in the Nazi concentration camps— one of the most horrific cases of human suffering in history— and asserts confidently that not only must there be meaning in suffering, but that without suffering life cannot be complete. That, and that the fundamental element of human freedom is while we do not always choose our circumstances, there is always a choice to make: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” The book is essential reading for everyone in my opinion.
I read this book in my early twenties and I reread it every 2-3 years.
Richard Freedman, director Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre, South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation: A formative book for me in my journey into an understanding of the Holocaust was If Not Now, When? By Primo Levi. I read the novel in my twenties (in the 1970’s) and found I was drawn in through the central character of the narrative into a world of which I had little understanding.
More recent books which I think are gateway books into Holocaust history are Laurence Reese’s, Auschwitz which is written in an easily accessible style but which is meticulously researched and which uses testimony of witnesses: both victims and perpetrators.
I would also recommend at least one survivor testimony, maybe Eva’s Story: A Survivor’s Tale by the Step-Sister of Anne Frank by Eva Schloss or Night by Eli Wiesel.
Anthony Julius, London law firm of Mishcon de Reya and author of Trials of the Diaspora: Elie Wiesel’s Night and Saul Friedlander’s two-volume history The Years Of Extermination: 1939-1945 and The Years Of Persecution: 1933-1939.
There are three vital literary forms available in any reckoning with the Shoah: (1) testimony (2) fiction and (3) history. Friedlander’s work is a masterly combination of (1) with (3). Wiesel’s work is an outstanding instance of (1); among his other texts the young person will find masterly combinations of (1) with (2).
Steven T. Katz, Slater Professor of Holocaust Studies, Boston University: Wiesel’s Night is the most famous personal memoir to be written by a survivor. Along with the work of Primo Levi it has a power that secondary scholarly studies lack.
However, to gain a full picture of what the Holocaust was, I would suggest Saul Friedlander’s one-volume comprehensive history Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1945.
(This is an abridged version of his two-volume study covering The Years of Persecution 1933-1939 and The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945). It is well written and uniquely introduces not only accounts from the persecutors but also voices from the Jewish side of the event, with a wide variety of quotations from Jewish memoirs, diaries, and other documents.
Sam Lipski, CEO of the Pratt Foundation, founding publisher of the Jerusalem Report and former editor-in- chief of the Australian Jewish News: At the risk of stretching the brief to the limit, I’d like to nominate three books: two works of fiction one non- fiction. In order of priority: The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart is as powerful and moving a novel when I reread it recently as it was when it profoundly influenced my thinking some 50 years ago, not only about the Shoah, but Jewish history, and indeed about Judaism. The War Against the Jews by Lucy Dawidowicz – as the title indicates, Dawidowicz emphasizes the centrality of the Final Solution as a Nazi war aim which sometimes took precedence over other military priorities. Other historians have disputed the thesis. But Dawidowicz is eminently readable and a recommended starting point. Mila 18 by Leon Uris – a best-selling novel by the author of Exodus focused around the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
This may be a familiar, even obvious reference to readers who were students in the 1970s. But none of the millennials, let alone any post millennials I asked, had the faintest idea. Uris may surprise them.
Rafael Medoff, historian and author: Regarding perpetrators: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel J. Goldhagen. Although there is no single answer to the question of “Why the Germans?” this thought-provoking volume comes closest to providing one. Regarding collaborators: Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. This powerful case study could not be timelier. Regarding bystanders: The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945, by David S. Wyman. Still the definitive chronicle of how the US government responded to news of the Holocaust and opportunities for rescue.
Aliza Moreno, director, Jewish Reading Hall, National Library of Israel: There are of course comprehensive histories of the Holocaust such as Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews and Yehuda Bauer’s A History of the Holocaust. However, if I would have to choose only two books for young people I would suggest a less academic genre – classic memoirs by Elie Wiesel Night and Primo Levi Survival In Auschwitz.
Robert Rozett, Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries: In the last year or two several one volume histories of the Holocaust have appeared, each one with its own merits and certainly worth reading. Among them, I would recommend first and foremost David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49. By taking into account newer research and new ideas that have been articulated in recent years, Cesarani manages to debunk some commonly held misconceptions and to paint a complex picture about the Shoah. Nonetheless, he emphasizes that since this is a book about the Holocaust, Jews are at its epicenter; so, this is not a history written only from the standpoint of the perpetrators but one in which Jews are subjects and not only objects.
One of the first books I read about the Shoah as a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at the end of the 1970s was Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (also published under the title If This is Man). Levi’s passage about continuing to wash every day, although he knew he could not really get clean but because civilized people wash regularly, is one of the most powerful evocations of the human spirit in any book about the Holocaust.
Hunt for the Jews, Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland
by Jan Grabowski and Such a Beautiful Sunny Day, Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside 1942-1945 by Barbara Engelking, are two recent books that drive home the relentless pursuit of the Jews, and the near impossibility of finding succor. They portray a landscape Jews encountered that was infused with widespread hatred, and a nearly universal collapse of compassion and courage.
Perhaps more than any other recent books, they demonstrate that although the Holocaust was conceived and initiated by Nazi Germany, a great many people across Europe enabled the tragedy to unfold. These two books are a must read for anyone trying to understand the reality of the Shoah, but one should avoid reading them before bedtime.
Bernard Wasserstein, emeritus professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Chicago: I query the concept of “basic literacy” in this context. This is not a matter of The Three Rs. Any understanding of the Shoah involves quite different requisites, among them, a framework of decent values, empathetic humanity, a sense of proportion, a rejection of ethnocentric fanaticism, and a sophisticated approach to history that transcends simplistic analogies.
The three books I would recommend are Franz Kafka, The Trial, written long before the rise of Hitler but eerily foresighted in its nightmarish vision of the individual deprived by mysterious social forces of all control over his own destiny; Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child, the memoir of a retired judge of the World Court who, as a nine-year-old, was a prisoner in Auschwitz; it combines a child’s naïve purity of observation with the mature wisdom and commitment to truth of a great jurist; David Biale’s Cultures of the Jews: A New History, an anthology that gives some sense of the world that was destroyed in the Shoah.
Efraim Zuroff, Simon Wiesenthal Center- Israel Office: The Jerusalem Report has posed a very important question, but one which is difficult to answer. If the answer you’re looking for is where to obtain maximum information on the history of the Shoah, I would choose certain books, but perhaps what would be more important is to choose a few books which are likely to inspire interest in the subject and further reading, and I prefer to name a few books in the latter category.
Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness; From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder, a fascinating attempt by journalist Gitta Sereny to determine how people become mass murderers, in this case Franz Stangl, who began his career in the Nazis’ euthanasia program and then was transferred to Poland, where he built Sobibor and was the commandant of Treblinka. She interviewed him for about 70 hours while he was awaiting trial in Germany, to which he had been extradited from Brazil after being exposed by Simon Wiesenthal.
I read it as a graduate student at Hebrew University sometime in the seventies, while studying for an MA in Holocaust Studies. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost; The Search for Six of the Six Million, is a fascinating story of the author’s search for the facts about the murder of his uncle and his family in Bolechow (Poland/Ukraine), which personalizes and humanizes the victims in a moving manner, and is in my eyes, a very special book. Lawrence Douglas, The Right Wrong Man; John Demjanjuk and the Last Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, a brilliant analysis of the place of the Demjanjuk trial in the history of the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice in Germany, Israel, and the United States, and a convincing treatise on the importance of holding Holocaust perpetrators accountable.
Elliot Jager invites you to follow him on Twitter #JagerFile.