Star of David patch c. WWII
A few years ago, my parents moved into a neighbourhood in New Jersey, and my mom introduced me to one of her new neighbours, Ruth Millman. Ruth is a Holocaust survivor who as a young girl with her mother escaped the fate of the concentration camps by fleeing to Italy, where they lived for a time with Italian partisans in the mountains. Eventually she came to the United States, became an interior designer, and still educates young people about the Holocaust.
Besides being fascinated by this parallel with my novel Ciao Bella, in which Janice and I chronicle an Italian partisan family in the aftermath of World War II, I was horrified to hear Ruth say how many people she meets who know nothing about the Holocaust. They are not deniers – they are unaware.
I feel so strongly that historical fiction is a great way to learn about the past but with empathy, allowing the reader to enter into the interior lives of the characters, for them to feel alive. Thus here are my suggestions of books to read to learn about this crucial period of history.
Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself by Judy Blume – Not strictly a Holocaust book, but a way to introduce the topic to children. I remember distinctly this being the first time I learned about the Holocaust. I was about 10 or 11 years old and loved all the Judy Blume books. I was absolutely blown away to learn such a thing could have happened.
Stones from the River by Ursali Hegi – Another book that has stayed with me decades after reading it, it’s about a German dwarf whose family helped hide Jews.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – One of the most popular novels about the Holocaust, this haunting, beautiful book aimed at young adult readers has more than 1.6 million reviews on Goodreads. Relevant for older adults too.
The Room on Rue Amelie by Kristin Harmel – It was this more romantic book that made me realize how many untold stories there still are about the Holocaust. No spoilers here but I had to research whether the last third was plausible: it is.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay – A beautiful, awful book about the French part of the Holocaust. It has a dual timeline – try to get past the present-day story, which did not work as well for me.
There are of course many more books out there, including nonfiction, but these are the ones that have really stuck with me and that I recommend.
Whatever you read, in this time of rising anti-Semitism: Never Forget.
Raphael Update: The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in San Diego, California is presenting a five-week lecture series starting March 31, 2020.