Sometimes we read for pleasure while at other times reading for information is far more important. Reading about the atrocities of the Holocaust is one of those times when I can honestly say I read for knowledge rather than to relax. Yes, you could argue that occasionally, even some of the most horrendous stories have a few heart-warming moments mentioned but realistically each and every story written about the death camps is disturbing.
Why then should we read about the Holocaust and the treatment of people at the likes of Auschwitz, Dachau, or any other concentration camp? Some, as we are all aware, were used as extermination camps to systematically kill millions of people leading to the world’s largest-ever genocide of the human race. Others like Sachsenhausen were not used for ethnical cleansing but were used instead as a holding camp for political prisoners and so while the death toll was still high due to malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion, it was nothing compared to the numbers that lost their lives in the gas chambers.
It is a time in history that no-one should ever be allowed to forget. It was a horrific act that can never ever be allowed to take place again and therefore, in order for this to happen, we need to remember. We owe it to everyone that lost their lives to be reminded about the pain and suffering that came about because of one dictator during World War II.
Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland is probably the most remembered concentration camp and can still be visited today. It is estimated that over one million people lost their lives here and for that reason has become the most dominant symbol of the Holocaust.
For some, the need for knowledge is so great that they wish to learn as much as they can before visiting. For others, they want to read the stories of the survivors but never wish to visit such a harrowing sight. Either way, since the liberation of these camps, many stories have been written down so that they can be remembered even after these survivors have passed away.
Which books should we, therefore, be reading if we want to learn more about what happened during those dark years?
Books to Read Before Visiting Auschwitz Concentration Camp
#1 If This Is a Man (Primo Levi)
(Known as Survival In Auschwitz in the US)
The story begins with Primo Levi’s deportation from Turin, Italy, to the concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland in 1943. Levi, then a 25-year-old chemist, spent 10 months in the camp. Even Levi’s most graphic descriptions of the horrors he witnessed and endured there are marked by a restraint and wit that not only gives readers access to his experience, but confronts them with it in stark ethical and emotional terms.
#2 By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz (Max Eisen)
Tibor “Max” Eisen was born in Moldava, Czechoslovakia into an Orthodox Jewish family. He had an extended family of sixty members, and he lived in a family compound with his parents, his two younger brothers, his baby sister, his paternal grandparents and his uncle and aunt. In the spring of1944–five and a half years after his region had been annexed to Hungary and the morning after the family’s yearly Passover Seder–gendarmes forcibly removed Eisen and his family from their home. They were brought to a brickyard and eventually loaded onto crowded cattle cars bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau. At fifteen years of age, Eisen survived the selection process and he was inducted into the camp as a slave labourer.
One day, Eisen received a terrible blow from an SS guard. Severely injured, he was dumped at the hospital where a Polish political prisoner and physician, Tadeusz Orzeszko, operated on him. Despite his significant injury, Orzeszko saved Eisen from certain death in the gas chambers by giving him a job as a cleaner in the operating room. After his liberation and new trials in Communist Czechoslovakia, Eisen immigrated to Canada in 1949, where he has dedicated the last twenty-two years of his life to educating others about the Holocaust across Canada and around the world.
#3 The Stone Crusher: The True Story of a Father and Son’s Fight for Survival in Auschwitz (Jeremy Dronfield)
In 1939, Gustav Kleinmann, a Jewish upholsterer in Vienna, was arrested by the Nazis. Along with his sixteen-year-old son Fritz, he was sent to Buchenwald in Germany, where a new concentration camp was being built. It was the beginning of a six-year odyssey almost without parallel. They helped build Buchenwald, young Fritz learning construction skills which would help preserve him from extermination in the coming years.
But it was his bond with his father that would ultimately keep them both alive. When the fifty-year-old Gustav was transferred to Auschwitz, a certain death sentence, Fritz was determined to go with him. His wiser friends tried to dissuade him but that was impossible, and Fritz pleaded for a place on the Auschwitz transport. “He is a true comrade,” Gustav wrote in his secret diary, “always at my side. The boy is my greatest joy. We are inseparable.” Gustav kept his diary hidden throughout his six years in the death camps—even Fritz knew nothing of it.
From this diary, Fritz’s own accounts, and other eyewitness testimony, Jeremy Dronfield has constructed a riveting tale of a father-son bond that proved stronger than the machine that sought to break them both.
This has since been republished with the title: The Boy who followed his Father to Auschwitz
#4 Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz (Eva Mozes Kor & Lisa Rojany Buccieri)
Eva Mozes Kor was 10 years old when she arrived in Auschwitz. While her parents and two older sisters were taken to the gas chambers, she and her twin, Miriam, were herded into the care of the man known as the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele and subjected to sadistic medical experiments and forced to fight daily for their own survival.
Through this book, readers will learn of a child’s endurance and survival in the face of truly extraordinary evil.
#5 Last Stop Auschwitz: My story of survival from within the camp (Eddy de Wind)
This is an extraordinary account of life as a prisoner, a near real-time record of the daily struggle to survive but also of the flickering moments of joy Eddy and Friedel found in each other – passing notes through the fence, sometimes stealing a brief embrace. Documenting the best and the worst of humanity, it is a unique and timeless story that reminds us of what we as humans are capable of, but that there is hope, even in Hell. Thought to be the only complete book written within Auschwitz itself, it will linger with you long after the final page has been turned.
#6 The Child of Auschwitz (Lily Graham)
It is 1942 and Eva Adami has boarded a train to Auschwitz. Barely able to breathe due to the press of bodies and exhausted from standing up for two days, she can think only of her longed-for reunion with her husband Michal, who was sent there six months earlier.
But when Eva arrives at Auschwitz, there is no sign of Michal and the stark reality of the camp comes crashing down upon her. As she lies heartbroken and shivering on a thin mattress, her head shaved by rough hands, she hears a whisper. Her bunkmate, Sofie, is reaching out her hand.
As the days pass, the two women learn each other’s hopes and dreams – Eva’s is that she will find Michal alive in this terrible place, and Sofie’s is that she will be reunited with her son Tomas, over the border in an orphanage in Austria. Sofie sees the chance to engineer one last meeting between Eva and Michal and knows she must take it even if means befriending the enemy.
But when Eva realises she is pregnant she fears she has endangered both their lives. The women promise to protect each other’s children, should the worst occur. For they are determined to hold on to the last flower of hope in the shadows and degradation: their precious children, who they pray will live to tell their story when they no longer can.
#7 The Sisters of Auschwitz: The True Story of Two Jewish Sisters’ Resistance in the Heart of Nazi Territory (Roxane van Iperen)
It is 1940 and the Nazis have occupied The Netherlands but resistance is growing and two Jewish sisters – Janny and Lien Brilleslijper – are risking their lives to save those being hunted, through their clandestine safe house ‘The High Nest’. It becomes one of the most important safe houses in the country but when the house and its occupants are betrayed the most terrifying time of the sisters’ lives begins. This is the beginning of the end.
With German defeat in sight, the Brilleslijper family are put on the last train to Auschwitz, along with Anne Frank and her family. What comes next challenges the sisters beyond human imagination as they are stripped of everything but their courage, resilience, and love for each other.
#8 The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz (Jack Fairweather)
In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, an underground operative called Witold Pilecki accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interred at a new concentration camp on the border of the Reich.
His mission was to report on Nazi crimes and raise a secret army to stage an uprising. The name of the detention centre was Auschwitz.
It was only after arriving at the camp that he started to discover the Nazi’s terrifying designs. Over the next two and half years, Witold forged an underground army that smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities to the West, culminating in the mass murder of over a million Jews. His reports from the camp were to shape the Allies’ response to the Holocaust – yet his story was all but forgotten for decades.
#9 Survivor: Auschwitz, the Death March and my Fight for Freedom (Sam Pivnik)
In 1939, on his 13th birthday, the Nazis invaded Poland. Sam Pivnik survived the two ghettoes set up in his home town of Bedzin and six months working on the processing ramp at Auschwitz, where prisoners were either taken away for entry to the camp or gassing.
After this harrowing experience, he was sent to work at the brutal Furstengrube mining camp. He could have died on the ‘Death March’ that took him west as the Third Reich collapsed, and he managed to swim to safety when the Royal Air Force mistakenly sank the prison ship Cap Arcona in 1945.
#10 The Saboteur of Auschwitz: The Inspiring True Story of a British Soldier Held Prisoner in Auschwitz (Colin Rushton)
In 1942, young British soldier Arthur Dodd was taken prisoner by the German Army and transported to Oswiecim in Polish Upper Silesia. The Germans gave it another name, now synonymous with mankind’s darkest hours – Auschwitz.
Forced to do hard labour, starved and savagely beaten, Arthur thought his life would end in Auschwitz. Determined to go down fighting, he sabotaged Nazi industrial work, risked his life to alleviate the suffering of the Jewish prisoners and aided a partisan group planning a mass break-out.
This shocking true story sheds new light on the operations at the camp, exposes a hierarchy of prisoner treatment by the SS and presents the largely unknown story of the military POWs held there.
#11 First One In, Last One Out: Auschwitz Survivor 31321 (Marilyn Shimon)
In this grisly memoir, Marilyn resurrects Murray Scheinberg’s stories of six hellish years in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The Polish Jew was one of the first eight men to enter Auschwitz, as a political prisoner in 1940, and one of the last to escape Dachau.
Rejected by a publisher in the 1960s because of its incredible details, this true story, finally available to the public, will shock, horrify, and touch readers.
#12 The Children’s Block: Based on a true story by an Auschwitz survivor (Otto B. Kraus)
Alex Ehren is a poet, a prisoner and a teacher in block 31 in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the children’s block. He spends his days trying to survive while illegally giving lessons to his young charges while shielding them as best he can from the impossible horrors of the camp. But trying to teach the children is not the only illicit activity that Alex is involved in. Alex is keeping a diary.
This is a true story of 500 Jewish children who lived in the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau between September 1943 and June 1944.
#13 Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account (Miklós Nyiszli)
When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, they sent virtually the entire Jewish population to Auschwitz. A Jew and a medical doctor, the prisoner Dr. Miklos Nyiszli was spared death for a grimmer fate: to perform “scientific research” on his fellow inmates under the supervision of the man who became known as the infamous “Angel of Death” – Dr. Josef Mengele.
Nyiszli was named Mengele’s personal research pathologist. In that capacity, he also served as physician to the Sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who worked exclusively in the crematoriums and were routinely executed after four months. Miraculously, Nyiszli survived to give this horrifying and sobering account.
#14 Auschwitz Lullaby (Mario Escobar)
In 1943 Germany, Helene is just about to wake up her children to go to school when a group of policemen breaks into her house. The policemen want to haul away her gypsy husband and their five children. The police tell Helene that as a German she does not have to go with them, but she decides to share the fate of her family. After convincing her children that they are going off to a vacation place, so as to calm them, the entire family is deported to Auschwitz.
For being German, they are settled in the first barracks of the Gypsy Camp. The living conditions are extremely harsh, but at least she is with her five children. A few days after their arrival, Doctor Mengele comes to pay her a visit, having noticed on her entry card that she is a nurse. He proposes that she direct the camp’s nursery. The facilities would be set up in Barrack 29 and Barrack 31, one of which would be the nursery for newborn infants and the other for children over six years old.
Helene, with the help of two Polish Jewish prisoners and four gypsy mothers, organizes the buildings. Though Mengele provides them with swings, Disney movies, school supplies, and food, the people are living in crowded conditions under extreme conditions. And less than 400 yards away, two gas chambers are exterminating thousands of people daily.
#15 The Librarian of Auschwitz (Antonio Iturbe)
Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.
Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees and so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.
#16 The Choice: Embrace the Possible (Edith Eger)
It’s 1944 and sixteen-year-old ballerina and gymnast Edith Eger is sent to Auschwitz. Separated from her parents on arrival, she endures unimaginable experiences, including being made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. When the camp is finally liberated, she is pulled from a pile of bodies, barely alive.
#17 Auschwitz Escape: The Klara Wizel Story (Danny Naten & R.J. Gifford)
At sixteen years old, Klara Wizel is full of life with a loving family. But her spirit quails when she and her family are swept up with fifteen thousand other Hungarian Jews and forcibly transported to one of the world’s most infamous concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau. There Klara comes face to face with one of history’s most infamous Nazi doctors, nicknamed The Great Selector and the Murderer in White, Josef Mengele.
Klara watches in horror as Mengele sends her parents, her younger brother, and her older sister to the gas chamber, leaving Klara and her two remaining sisters to be housed like animals in the women’s barracks. They live in constant fear of Mengele choosing them for one of his cruel scientific experiments.
As the Russian allies close in, Mengele steps up his selection process and sentences Klara to the gas chamber. But in a miraculous turn of events, Klara escapes both the chamber and Auschwitz itself and makes her way across war-torn Europe back home to Sighet.
#18 Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz (Olga Lengyel)
Olga Lengyel tells, frankly and without compromise, one of the most horrifying stories of all time. This true, documented chronicle is the intimate, day-to-day record of a beautiful woman who survived the nightmare of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Having lost her husband, her parents, and her two young sons to the Nazi exterminators, Olga Lengyel had little to live for during her seven-month internment in Auschwitz. Only Lengyel’s work in the prisoners’ underground resistance and the need to tell this story kept her fighting for survival. She survived by her wit and incredible strength.
#19 Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz (Rena Kornreich Gelissen)
Sent to Auschwitz on the first Jewish transport, Rena Kornreich survived the Nazi death camps for over three years. While there she was reunited with her sister Danka. Each day became a struggle to fulfill the promise Rena made to her mother when the family was forced to split apart; a promise to take care of her sister.
#20 The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne)
Nine-year-old Bruno knows nothing of the Final Solution and the Holocaust. He is oblivious to the appalling cruelties being inflicted on the people of Europe by his country. All he knows is that he has been moved from a comfortable home in Berlin to a house in a desolate area where there is nothing to do and no one to play with. Until he meets Shmuel, a boy who lives a strange parallel existence on the other side of the adjoining wire fence and who, like the other people there, wears a uniform of striped pyjamas.
Bruno’s friendship with Shmuel will take him from innocence to revelation. And in exploring what he is unwittingly a part of, he will inevitably become subsumed by the terrible process.
#21 Night (Elie Wiesel)
Born in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home in 1944 to Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald.
Night is the terrifying record of Elie Wiesel’s memories of the death of his family, the death of his own innocence, and his despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the absolute evil of man.
#22 The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Heather Morris)
In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.
One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.
Heather has since gone on to publish a second story from this time, Cilka’s Journey.
There are so many poignant stories about the survivors of Auschwitz, stories that need to be read and remembered. Chances are, I have missed some important and memorable books which people have read and therefore I urge you to add to this list, not only for myself but so that others have a comprehensive list to be able to refer to.
Have you read a book about Auschwitz that you feel others really must read?
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