The Holocaust is ever-present in Jewish lives. It is a deep well of sadness fed by smaller tributaries — pogroms, Inquisition, exile, blood libel, exclusion, show trials, “Camp Auschwitz” — into which our cups are dipped before we are born, and that we drink out of duty, or community, or unthinkingly, because grief is a cornerstone of Jewish identity.
I have always struggled with this. I feel the magnetic pull of the Holocaust like anyone else, but grief is seductive. It has lulled many of us into the strange comfort of replaying our forbears’ traumas on loop, each turn growing increasingly nostalgic and soothing.
There are so many satisfying books and films about the Holocaust that it’s easy to forget that the Holocaust is not satisfying. It is absurd and obscene. It is a manifestation of centuries of exile, legal restrictions, war, exhaustion, inequality, and propaganda; the Allies’ victory was not the culmination of these problems, nor of barbarism. The factors that lead people to commit and submit to genocide do not allow for a pat narrative.
Our cultural appetite for the heroic Holocaust story is understandable, but it is not benign. It reduces the Nazis’ victims and Nazi perpetrators to stereotypes stripped of their context, and it limits our understanding of fascism and antifascism — a limitation that is fueling fighting and violence across America.
This year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I urge you to seek out difficult books that force us to confront what it means to be within and beyond atrocity. The following 10 books have changed the way I understand the Holocaust and are an excellent place to start.
As a young woman Jalowicz-Simon broke with her family, which was determined to stay with the Jewish community during deportation, and disappeared into wartime Berlin. Without her star, but also without true anonymity, Jalowicz-Simon moved between safe houses, always within sight of the authorities. She quickly learned to assimilate into new situations regardless of morality or conventions, throwing herself into sexual relationships to survive. Underground in Berlin provides a fascinating portrait of Berlin as a liberal city generally disinterested in Nazi ideology but still willing to give up its Jews, and of a cunning young woman determined to live through the war. Not since reading Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz have I encountered such a brilliant, dispassionate account of survival.
I learned about this strange and stirring book from author Bram Presser’s fantastic 2019 Electric Literature list of unsung Holocaust novels. In his NYT review, critic Craig Seligman notes, “Drndic is writing neither to entertain (her novel is splendid and absorbing nevertheless) nor to instruct (its subject, the Holocaust, is too intractable to yield lessons). She is writing to witness, and to make the pain stick.” A novel about a Catholicized Jewish family that mostly escapes the Nazi occupation of their town, Trieste expertly blends fictional and historical persons and archival documents (including a catalogue of victims that recalls 2666) to explore the bystander’s complicity and the intergenerational reach of guilt. If pain could be turned to paper, it would feel something like this.
I was assigned this book several times in college and graduate school, so I was shocked to learn that none of my coworkers had read it. Levi’s dispassionate, almost anthropological take on how he survived life in the Auschwitz concentration camp is stark, insightful, and incredibly nuanced. My own slim copy is underlined, highlighted, and tattered; and every time I return to it, I’m amazed by the endurance and acuity of the young Jewish chemist from Turin, who experienced the worst of humanity and was able to create not just art, but understanding.
It took me a long time to open this book — years after buying it. In Memory’s Kitchen is a reproduction of a cookbook compiled by the female prisoners of Terezín, the “model” ghetto that was in reality a waystation for Auschwitz. Dying of hunger, these mothers and grandmothers handwrote their recipes for Cheap Rose Hip Kisses and Onion Kuchen across Nazi propaganda leaflets, some with poignant attributions: “Viennese Dumplings (Mrs. Weil).” It’s hard to express why this book hits me so hard, but I think it’s a combination of the love and yearning in each recipe and the strength it must have required to summon memories of happier days and imagine a future where they, or their loved ones, could share an ordinary meal. As a mother who has cooked many harried family meals, this tenacious reminder of the everyday beauty of having plenty and eating it together makes me cry.
You may be familiar with Schlink’s bestselling novel about a love affair between a young man, Michael, and an older woman, Hanna, who is eventually revealed to be a Nazi war criminal. It’s beautifully written, but most interesting is Michael’s (and Schlink’s) withholding of moral judgment so as not to color the reader’s understanding of Hanna and her crimes. Critics of the book argue that Hanna’s illiteracy is used as an excuse for her behavior, but I disagree. It’s deeply uncomfortable to confront a monster and realize her humanity, and The Reader requires such Levinasian empathy from both its characters and its audience.
Celan is unfairly characterized as a Holocaust poet as his work stretches far beyond the Shoah, but his meditations on memory (most famously in “Death Fugue”) are chilling and challenging, stark and withholding. Primo Levi has famously argued that the unreality of the concentration camps required a new, harsher language, and for all its beauty, Celan’s poetry seems an apt contender. It is surreal and devastating, turned inward to a nightmare the reader can only guess at.
Note: It’s only sporadically available but Celan fans should keep their eyes open for Michael Hamburger’s translation. It’s widely considered the superior collection.
German historian Fest was raised by political dissidents during the Nazi regime. The title refers to his father’s pet phrase: “Even if all the others do — I will not,” a position the Fest family held despite the dangers and deprivations of doing so. Fest never overplays the drama of his family’s position: they were harassed, not deported, and life’s pleasures — friendships, family, culture — continued until Fest was conscripted and subsequently captured by Allied troops. The result is an eloquent if uneasy memoir that leads the reader to ask: Is it enough to say you disagree with totalitarianism and genocide; does doing so absolve you of collective guilt? It’s tempting to say no, but I think we then, in this modern age of Myanmar, child separation, Uighurs, and more, need to ask ourselves the same question.
Isabel Fonseca’s remarkable study was the first time I encountered a detailed exploration of the history and culture of the Romani peoples of Europe, whom Hitler identified, like Jews, as enemies of the Aryan state. Percentages of Romani deaths vary widely, likely due to regional disparities and the undocumented work of the Einsatzgruppen, but it is estimated that 25%-75% of the total population were exterminated, and Romani children were of documented interest to the horrific Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Fonseca doesn’t dwell on this history, but her extremely rare acceptance by Romani clans and subsequent reporting provide excellent historical and cultural context for this still little-understood and maligned group.
I’m not usually drawn to “I bought a home in France and everything changed” memoirs, but Mouillot’s excavation of her grandparents’ separation following their harrowing wartime escape from France is a fascinating study of the Nuremberg Trials, survivors’ guilt, and the long, often bewildering reach of trauma. That Mouillot is able to use what she learns to build a stable marriage and home for herself makes for a tidy narrative, but a no less perceptive or important one.
This anthology of the poetry of witness, edited and introduced by the wonderful poet and activist Carolyn Forché (read The Angel of History), is hard to find but well worth keeping an eye out for. Against Forgetting collects poems written throughout the 20th century, by victims across the world. Read as a whole it puts the Holocaust within the context of a century of global conflict, allowing the reader to confront both the exceptionalism and universality of its cruelty. Taken individually, each poem sings of the value of the lyric to lend voice, complexity, protest, and some shade of understanding to what, for most of us, is and hopefully will remain the incomprehensible darkness of the worst of human experience.