Novels, memory and the Holocaust

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