Novels, memory and the Holocaust

Buchenwald concentration camp 1945

Holocaust Remembrance Day just passed, and it got me thinking about memory and empathy.

"What are we going to do when the last survivor passes?" asked David G. Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, located in New York City. Textbooks aren't adequate to describe the crimes of Nazism, Mr. Marwell said. "We rely increasingly on the second generation to tell their parents' stories, so that there is still the human factor."

With so many decades gone by since that nightmarish time, and so few survivors left, how can this human factor be conveyed? How can we help the next generation understand the brutal anti-Semitism that resulted in the Holocaust? And how to help them understand, and oppose, the anti-Semitism that still exists?

Besides the testimony of survivors and their families, the museums, exhibits and documentaries, there are movies: "Sophie's Choice," "Schindler's List" and "Life is Beautiful," which had huge impacts on mass audiences.

Less well-known are the many novels about this period, which are also powerful and emotional ways to educate.

I checked Amazon and Powells, and depending on how I searched, came up with 350 to 700 titles. But here are a few to start your list.

"The Seventh Cross," by Anna Seghers, is about a group of men who escape from a Nazi prison camp, and are re-captured one by one. The prisoners are forced to stand all day in front of seven crosses that are erected in the camp, and severely punished if they falter. The seventh cross stays empty, because the leader of the group, George Heisler, successfully escapes. He does so due to the courage of ordinary people who understood and resisted the Nazi regime.

"Naked Among Wolves," by Bruno Apitz, is the riveting (and true) story of how prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp hid a small Jewish boy, even as they planned to liberate the camp from within, risking both the success of the plan and their own lives.

If you haven't heard of these two wonderful books, it's not a surprise, since the heroes are Communists. (But you can find them both on

"The Good German," by Joseph Kanon, set in postwar Berlin, delves into the stories of the people who survived, and how they did so. Although its focus is not on the experience of the Jewish people, the terror and the horrific crimes of the Nazis come through, including through details of the underground camps where people were worked to death on the German rocket program.

Last but not least is a book I read to my children, and highly recommend. "Number the Stars," by Lois Lowry, is a beautifully written account of the evacuation of almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark to Sweden, in which many Danish people participated. A sense of the fear and violence of the time comes through this less-told story of collective resistance to the Nazis.

Photo: Survivors of Nazi slave labor in Buchenwald concentration camp. National Archives/Public Domain


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  • This is a great article.

    Perhaps my favorite work on the Holocaust, through any medium, was Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfant. It's not a "Holocaust film" per se, as it doesn't take place in the camps; instead it takes place at a Catholic boys school in France under the Vichy government. The death camps are in the background, but very present throughout the film.

    Most of us can relate to the film's main protagonists, two boys, one of whom is popular, and one of whom is different (curly hair, says different prayers secretly). Their budding friendship is chronicled throughout the film. Everything presented is emotionally familiar to anyone who went to school and formed friendship, at least until the denouement, in which everything familiar to the average person's life is stripped away and fascist Europe comes slamming in.

    For me, this movie works more than anything I've seen, much more than Schindler's List, as it portrays a single person, or pair of friends, and how the war, the Nazis and the Holocaust affect them.

    Posted by Dan M, 04/26/2010 4:58pm (6 years ago)

  • As one whom lost great Uncles Aunts and Cousins in the camps of Poland and Germany during WWII (just for the simple fact they were Jews, nothing more nothing less) my fear is when the last survivor dies all sorts of deniers will pop out of the woodwork. People will use denial as a tool against Jews in what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, forgetting that working class Israelis are dealing with a rightwing government in Israel now . If it were not for the fascist reactionary forces in Europe and their anti Semitism, there would be no Israel right now. Remember not all Jews are Zionists

    Posted by Red Grandad, 04/26/2010 3:02pm (6 years ago)

  • Recommended reading, Norman Finkelstein's "The Holocaust Industry."

    Posted by Johnz52, 04/25/2010 2:27pm (6 years ago)

  • Isaac's Torh is a wonderful reading on the atrocities of ww II and facism. Cheers Maria

    Posted by Maria Mello, 04/25/2010 4:33am (6 years ago)

  • The European events of WWI are nothing more than a footnote of man's in humanity. The fact that a group of people have engaged in demanding that the world recognize this event as the most horrible in the entire history of man is ludicrous. Chinese, Native Americans, African Americans, Armenians, Irish, Cambodians and Africans have all experienced a Holocaust of their own during the 18th,19th and 20th centuries. To say that these events pale compared to what happened to one group of people is disingenuous at the very least. While it is important for students to learn their history to say that text books don't include enough on the European events of WWII is false. As a former teacher for LA Unified we had a full week to discuss and teach about this particular event in history. Ironically there was no mention of the Irish "Famine" and coffin ships which killed off over one third of Ireland's population, nor was there any mention of the Asian Holocaust committed by the Japanese during the very same war in any of the U.S. history lesson plans for 11th graders. Also there was no instruction of the Armenian Holocaust or the Cambodian Holocaust, both of which occurred in the 20th century. To demand that the world recognize the events of WWII as the worst ever perpetrated upon a group is elitism at its worst. This is ancient history compared to the Cambodian Holocaust as well as the Holocausts in Africa and Sudan. Where is the outcry that these events aren't being given the weight they deserve in a high school history class? Where are the list of films dealing with these events? Where is the international day of recognition marking these events?

    Posted by Johnz52, 04/24/2010 12:55pm (6 years ago)

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