January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day; it was on that date in 1945 that Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A powerful way to commemorate the Holocaust is to read its literature: the letters, diaries, memoirs, essays, poems, and fiction created during the events and since. A handful of these texts are well-known: Anne Frank’s Diary, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s memoirs Night and Survival in Auschwitz, Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus. These are rightly famous, and well worth reading (even if Night drives me crazy).
But what if you’ve read them and are looking for more?
Here are 15 less-familiar titles that will deepen your understanding of the Holocaust:
David Albahari, Götz and Meyer (1998) Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (2004)
In this novel, a teacher in Belgrade traces the fate of his relatives, uncovering the circumstances of their deaths in a gas van driven by the SS officers of the title. A novel about the limits of history and the possibilities and perils of the imagination.
Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (2017)
Why read this out of the many fascinating and heartbreaking Holocaust diaries? For one thing, the story is extraordinary: together with a cousin, Applebaum took refuge on a farm near Tarnapol, Poland. For much of their time in hiding, the two young women were buried in a wooden box, about the size of a wardrobe, able to come out only for an hour or two each night. More vexingly still, both women had sex with their protector, events described obliquely yet excitedly by Applebaum, yet which can’t help but lead us to ask questions about consent and abuse. Another quality that distinguishes this diary is that it’s paired with a memoir written much later, in which Applebaum describes her new life in Canada and reflects on her wartime experiences, yet in ways that seem at odds with the way she told them in the diary.
Heimrad Bäcker, transcript (1986) Translated by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling (2010)
Conceptual poetry, writes the scholar Leslie Morris, “seeks to create texts that disavow the very act of creation.” Bäcker’s poems are taken from official documents and eyewitness testimony. Here’s one, taken from a postwar record of criminal proceedings:
whereas he had to prepare breakfast each morning for about 300 prisoners in camp III, he had to provide a midday meal for only about 150.
Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar (1969) Translated by Leila Vennewitz (1990)
Maybe the most brilliant ghetto novel, written by one who survived the Lodz ghetto and two concentration camps. At the beginning of the novel, Jacob happens to overhear a bulletin on German radio describing a Russian advance. Having let slip the news, Jacob, who is too frightened to explain how he came by this knowledge, pretends that he has a radio (strictly forbidden in the ghetto) and invents the news. Amazingly, the book is funny, as well as very, very sad. Jacob’s inventions are an allegory for our own desires as readers of traumatic events.
Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (written 1946-48) Translated by Barbara Vedder (1967)
Dark. So dark. These stories are more or less loosely based on Borowski’s own experiences as a non-Jewish political prisoner at Auschwitz and Dachau, most famously about his time as a member of the “Canada Kommando,” the prisoners tasked with separating the new arrivals from their belongings. Desperate.
Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Translated by Samuel E. Martin (2017)
The bark of the title comes from a birch tree at Birkenau, peeled off by Didi-Huberman on a recent visit. These same trees can be seen in the four famous photographs taken (at great risk and with daring subterfuge) by a member of the Sonderkommando (the “special squad”—the name given by the Nazis to the groups of Jews they selected to take the bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria) in the summer of 1944; these comprise the only images of the Holocaust taken by its victims. In this little book, Didi-Huberman intersperses his own amateur photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site with essayistic meditations on the paradoxes of commemorating mass murder.
Ida Fink, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (1983) Translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose (1987)
Ah, these stories! I’m in awe of how much Fink packs into just a few pages. Plus, she turns each text into a meditation on the stakes of representing and interpreting traumatic events. You would think the allegories of reading would get in the way of the emotional power of the stories. But no, Fink’s genius is to combine self-awareness with heart. Maybe the greatest Holocaust writer.
Imre Kertész, Fatelessness (1975) Translated by Tim Wilkinson (2004)
The most difficult but also the most brilliant Holocaust novel I know. Fourteen-year-old György is deported from Budapest in the summer of 1944 to a series of camps and (barely) lives to tell the tale. He tells his story in a fussy, roundabout style that is more amazed than horrified. What makes the book so challenging is that Kertész never allows his narrator the benefit of hindsight. Which allows us to experience the events of the Final Solution as its victims would have: as bewildering, boring, even at times exciting. An amazing accomplishment.
Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001)
Kluger’s bitter insights spare no one: she’s as scathing about the Vienna of her childhood as of the Jim Crow America she arrived in shortly after the war. And her portrait of her relationship with her mother—together, the two women survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen—is similarly unflinching. The memoir is highly self-reflexive; no surprise, perhaps, for Kluger, who re-wrote the book in English after writing a version of it in German, became a professor of literature.
Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Translated by Ann Smock (1996)
Enigmatic and fragmentary memoir by an eminent philosopher of Nietzsche and Freud about her experiences as a hidden child in Paris after her beloved father, a rabbi, is deported. The heart of the story is the triangular relationship between Kofman, her mother, and the loving yet anti-Semitic woman who took them in. I blogged about it here.
Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947) Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1991)
Brilliant memoir in which Millu tells heartbreaking stories of life in the women’s Lager in Birkenau. Here we find stories of pregnancy, prostitution, maternal love, self-sacrifice, sabotage, and gossip, told in unshowy, elegant prose. I’ve no idea why this book isn’t much more famous.
Jona Oberski. Childhood (1978) Translated by Ralph Mannheim (1983)
Spare, memorable novel based on Oberski’s own experience: born in 1938 in Amsterdam to German Jewish refugees, then deported first to the Westerbork transit camp and then Bergen-Belsen, where he was orphaned and cared for by a family friend. Much of its power comes from the point of view—we see what the child sees, we know what the child knows, leaving us often in the dark. I wrote about the effects of its style when the book was reissued a few years ago.
Göran Rosenberg, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012) Translated by Sarah Death (2015)
Rosenberg, a Swedish journalist, uncovers his parents’ story: how they respectively survived the war and built a life in Sweden after being miraculously reunited. As the title suggests, though, that life, although successful in many ways, was always lived in the shadow of the Holocaust. Rosenberg, as I wrote here, excels at depicting the scope of the concentration camp system, and the similarity between it and the Displaced Persons camps that replaced it.
Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter (2017)
Proving that great books about the Holocaust can still be written, Seiffert’s novel has several things going for it: its discrete, matter-of-fact style, which is nonetheless beautiful, even at times incantatory; its focus on an underexamined (at least in the English-speaking world) facet of the Shoah, the depredations of the Einsatzgruppen in the Ukraine in 1941/42; and its braiding together of stories of victims, perpetrators, and so-called bystanders.
Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982, revised 1984)
A recent discovery for me: an absorbing account of Tec’s wartime experiences, in which she lived with a Polish family and passed as a Gentile.
Do you have favourite Holocaust texts? Particular omissions you want to rectify? Let me know! And take a moment to thank the translators of these books; the Holocaust was a multilingual phenomenon: we need translators to understand its true dimensions.
Thank you for this list. I’m going to read Götz and Meyer.
You’re welcome! I hope you do: I think it is underappreciated. Let me know what you think!
Great list, Dorian. Jakob the Liar and Fatelessness are the ones I would like to read. I’ve added them to my wishlist.
Thanks, Joe. I think you would live them both, especially Fatelessness. I could see you enjoying (or, maybe more accurately, admiring) transcript as well.
I’m a little bit ashamed to say that I’ve only heard of three of the books on your list – A Boy in Winter, Bark and Fatelessness (which I recall you writing about in the past). Are you familiar with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl? I haven’t read it myself, but a friend rates it pretty highly.
PS Did you ever get a chance to watch that Laszlo Nemes film, Son of Saul? It popped up on TV over here a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t help but think of you when I saw it in the listings.
No shame! I was aiming for some more obscure titles! I only know them because I do this for a living!
You know, I have never read the Frankl. Which is kind of crazy. I’ve always had the vague idea it’s kind of a self-help book, but even if it is so what. I will read it. And no still haven’t seen Son of Saul. Every time I think about doing it, my heart feels heavy. It seems so intense…
Jorge Semprun’s Le Grand Voyage about his train journey to Buchenwald, and Literature or Life about his time in Buchenwald and liberation from it, have never left me.
This is a fascinating list. Thank you.
You’re welcome; thanks for commenting, Anthony. And thank you for the Semprun recommendations. He’s somehow never quite made it on to my radar. I will rectify.
A great list: I’ve read Fatelessness and agree. I think I would add Claude Lanzmann’s documentary, Shoah. At nearly-11-hours long, my memory of going to the cinema over three nights was a profound, immersive experience into the Holocaust.
I decided to keep films off the list, otherwise that would certainly have been on the list. Lanzmann drives me a little crazy sometimes, but Shoah is a monumental accomplishment, no question. I would so love to see it in a theatre!
It was an amazing experience to see it in theatre b/c the theatre happened to be the renovated, Art Deco theatre I used to watch pop Greek films when I was a child. Surreal and perfect contrast.
I guess Lanzmann falls into the Night category.
That must have been some cognitive dissonance!
Shoah is a hell of a lot more interesting than Night, IMO. But it is true that both writers have contributed to the sacralization of the Holocaust, which bugs me.
Super-dissonance: great venue, though, one of the best in Montreal.
I agree regarding Night and Shoah, it IS more interesting.
Thank you, Dorian.
This is a wonderful list, Dorian: I appreciate your distilling your reading experience in this way. I can’t recall if you’ve read Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: I’d be very interested to know what you think of it. (It is one of my top 10 non-fiction books of all time, no pressure!)
I loved it, but it’s been over a decade since I read it, and I wasn’t as conversant with Holocaust Lit then as I am now. Which isn’t to say I’d think any less of it now, but rather that I’d really like to re-read it with the context I have now.
Great list! I have read/am reading many of these, but was totally unfamiliar with a few; in particular, Childhood looks like one that I really should read.
I think you would like it a lot, especially with your Dutch heritage. What would your list look like? Hillesum, right? (I’ve yet to read her.)
Hillesum is awe-inspiring but also critically difficult. I mean, it is morally remarkable to forgive Nazis, but one wouldn’t expect/want everyone to do it. Other books I might add:
Jiri Weil- Life With a Star (Mendelssohn is on the Roof is good too)
Victor Klemperer- I Shall Bear Witness
Charlotte Delbo- Auschwitz and After
Solomon Perel- Europa, Europa
And while I know you were staying away from canonical authors, I recently read Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When? which doesn’t have quite the reputation of some of his other books, but is incredible.
I remember loving the Weil, but it was so long ago that I hardly remember anything about it. Been meaning to re-read for a while.
Delbo is a huge gap of mine.
Just saw the film version of Europa (and in fact decided to teach it this semester); plan to read the memoir in advance.
Glad you reminded me about If Not… I started it a couple of years ago and was really enjoying it, and then somehow it slipped away from me.
A great list with plenty to explore – I’ve only reead two of the books on it – Fatelessness and Gotz and Meyer. If I were to add any it would be Dasa Drndic;s Trieste and Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts.
Thanks, Grant. I’ve had Trieste for a while, but it looks so hard! Krall seems quite interesting: I’ve got The Woman from Hamburg, which I’m curious about. I will look for Chasing, too.
Dorian, thanks for this great list. I only know two or three of these titles, and of those the Ida Fink is thanks to you. You’ve previously mentioned Götz and Meyer, and I feel almost recalcitrant at having still not read Fatelessness. But I’m adding the others to the list too.
I’m curious – from your a comment in your post on Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation – how you define a Holocaust text. I can see why that particular book wouldn’t make the list, but what about something like Fritz Malleczewen’s Diary of a Man in Despair, which is really about the events leading to the Holocaust (in which Malleczewen died at Dachau), or Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which perhaps covers too much territory to make such a list?
Good question. For me, a Holocaust text addresses the state-sponsored genocide of groups the Nazis deemed undesirable, Jews most prominently, but also Roma/Sinti, the mentally & physically disabled, LGBTQ people, even Slavs (that was a part of their extermination plan they only started to get to).
Diary of a Man in Despair–which I have not yet read, though that lovely NYRB edition is on my shelf–I gather is a book about resistance to fascism. Reck was a victim of fascism, no doubt, but I wouldn’t say he was a victim of the Holocaust.
Life & Fate isn’t primarily a Holocaust text, but for me it does count because it also addresses the murder of Jews, and in such a moving way.
What do you think? How would you define a Holocaust text?
You’re asking me? I don’t know. I can’t seem to separate the fascism of the Nazis from their exercise of genocide. So even a book like Deviation I could appreciate for what it adds to the story of the entwined crimes, even though it’s most certainly not a work like If This Is a Man or Ida Fink’s stories. And so I guess I tend to fold works like Reck-Malleczewen’s or Life and Fate into the genre since the former is a perspective on how Nazism progressed (the footnote indicating R-M’s murder in Dachau at the end serving as a powerful coda) and the latter has completely indelible scenes of the camps that have been as impactful for me as anything I’ve read on the subject (I don’t know of another attempt at a first-person narrative of death in the gas chambers, for instance). Then again, I would certainly hope that a broad definition wouldn’t also include works of Holocaust denial. So maybe: any work that keeps the cataclysm of the Holocaust in mind and that leaves the reader determined that it never happen again?
Good way to think about it. And I sure agree about how powerful Life & Fate is, even though not a conventional Holocaust text.
You’re right, for sure, that fascism and genocide are entwined. But maybe it’s more a Venn diagram than circles of the same size.
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This is a great list, Dorian! Additionally, Aharon Appelfeld and Aleksandar Tišma would be on my personal list, as well as Fred Wander’s The Seventh Well. There is also an interesting novel by Bruno Apitz Naked Among Wolves about the survival of a Jewish child in Buchenwald (based on a real case). Edgar Hilsenrath’s The Nazi and the Barber would be also on my list. Richard Glazar’s Trap with a Green Fence is the account of one of the handful survivors of Treblinka and it is highly recommended as well. I am glad you included Jakob the Liar in the list, although W.G. Sebald denounced it (and many other books) as “Holocaust kitsch”. On the that occasion I was rather shocked about Sebald’s obvious lack of empathy with Holocaust survivors, who according to him were not able to adequately write about it. In case you are interested, there are two films based on Jacob the Liar, but in my opinion you should avoid the Hollywood adaptation and watch the much better East German DEFA film.
Thank you, Thomas. So many good recommendations here!
I confess I have never been able to warm to Appelfeld (except for the memoir, I liked that one). He often acts as if Jews should have known what was coming. (Wiesel does this in Night too, very offputting.)
But Tisma is on my list, as is Wander’s book (I can see it on the shelf from where I’m sitting). Hilsenrath and Glazar are on my list too. Glazar makes such an impression in Lanzmann’s Shoah, he just seems like a real mesch.
I didn’t know Sebald said that about Becker (where is that?). But that’s crazy. I’ve seen the DEFA film, which is really very interesting. I have no desire to see the Hollywood version!
Thanks again for all these great suggestions!
Regarding the polemic article of Sebald about Jurek Becker: https://www.nzz.ch/scheitern_und_gelingen-1.5380064 and http://www.wgsebald.de/becker/becker.html; there is also a (equally polemic but nevertheless interesting) book about Sebald and his approach towards authors of Holocaust literature: https://www.uibk.ac.at/literaturkritik/rezensionen/1074736.html (all in German, but I know that’s not a problem for you)
Oh, and the Apitz–I looked at this at the USHMM archive: fascinating. Someone should bring it back into print.
Yes, fascinating! It was a bestseller in the GDR, probably because it is highlighting favorably the role of the Communist Kapos in Buchenwald.
I forgot to mention the works of H.G. Adler, especially his book Theresienstadt. Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft.
Yes, Adler is a huge hole for me. I’ve got his three novels–they look fascinating but also daunting–and then Theresienstadt (quoted by Sebald AT LENGTH in Austerlitz) is a pretty heroic accomplishment as best I can tell. There’s an English translation out now too.
During a recent visit in Israel – very near to me, since I live in Jordan in the moment – I bought a few books with poetry and short prose by Chaim Nachman Bialik, Abraham Sutzkever and Josef Burg (all in bi-lingual editions Yiddish/German), great authors that could be considered here.
I wondered about all those visits to the blog from Jordan!
Sutzkever is a really terrific poet (Tzum Chaver is amazing for examples). Bialik and Burg are new to me. Will investigate!
Now that I have finished the book by Bialik, I see that I included him by mistake in the list. He died in 1934, and the long poem I read is about a pogrom in Russia he witnessed some decades before the Holocaust. Still a fascinating read, and one of the few texts he published in Yiddish.As for Josef Burg, I reviewed one of his books a while ago and may give you an impression: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=289
Thanks, Thomas, both for the clarification and the link to the Burg review. That book sounds terrific. Have you read David Vogel? His Married Life (written in Yiddish, set in Vienna) is well worth reading, and my sense from your review is that there are interesting echoes with Burg.
Thanks, Dorian. I haven’t read David Vogel yet, but thanks for mentioning him; will try to find his works. As for Czernowitz (Chernivtsi), the hometown of so many Jewish authors, I can recommend a visit there very much. It is a beautiful city, very Austro-Hungarian, and it makes an effort to keep its literary heritage alive; there is also an interesting yearly literary festival Meridian with many events in Ukrainian, German and Romanian. I visited the town several times when I lived in Moldova. (The memorial plate for Paul Celan is unfortunately at the wrong building.)
I would love to visit Czernowitz. Not going to happen anytime soon, but I will be in the Baltics next spring for a few days. Have you ever been there? (You seem to have been everywhere!)
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An excellent list, with many things new to me. I was, in fact, just reading about Ida Fink earlier today, and your comments here have galvanized me to get the fairly overpriced second hand copy of A Scrap of Time on Amazon. Remarkable that it’s out of print (in the UK, at least)
Ida Fink is so worth it, but yes it’s bewildering that it’s OP in the UK. Recently, Chris Power wrote on Fink in The Guardian (was kind enough to link to this post, actually), which may have driven up the price. I hope a publisher is listening!
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