Ten Novels About the Second World War You should definitely read while you’re at home…
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (2014)
This New York Times’ bestseller is about a French girl, Marie Laure, who became blind at the age of six.
Her father, locksmith and keeper of the keys of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, builds her a model of their neighborhood, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate it in real life.
The German orphan boy Werner has a gift for science. He can fix everything, especially radios. This talent brings him to the attention of the Nazis. He is sent to a school that trains an elite cadre for the Third Reich.
Their paths collide when Marie Laure and her father flee to her great-uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo during the occupation of France.
Werner is sent to Saint-Malo where Etienne uses his radio transmitter on behalf of the Resistance.
Marie Laure and Werner both try to survive the devastation of the Second World War.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne (2006)
Bruno, a nine-year-old child, is not a happy kid. His father has a new job, so their family has to move. Bruno has to leave his house, his neighborhood, and his friends behind.
His sister is not a big help to him, and their servants are nervous and tight-lipped. His mother tries to explain that this is his father’s duty.
The strangest part of the move is that there is a barbed-wire fence outside his new bedroom window, and there are groups of men and boys in striped pyjamas beyond the fence.
Along the fence, Bruno meets a boy. This friendship will take Bruno from innocence to revelation about the Final Solution and the Holocaust.
Unwillingly, Bruno become a part of this, and inevitably he is consumed by this terrible process.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas won the C&R Press Poetry Prize. A must-read for Young Adults!
The Kommandant’s Girl, Pam Jenoff (2007)
Emma Bau, a nineteen-year-old woman, has been married for only three weeks when Nazi tanks thunder into her beloved Poland. Emma’s husband, Jacob, is forced to disappear underground. Emma stays behind in the city’s Jewish ghetto.
One night, the Resistance smuggles her out of the ghetto. Emma is taken to Krakow to live with Jacob’s aunt, where she takes on a new identity. From that moment, she goes through life as Anna Lipowski, a gentile.
Emma’s situation gets even more complicated when she is introduced to Kommandant Richwalder, a high-ranking Nazi official.
He hires Emma to work for him as his assistant. Emma driven by her work in the Resistance, to use her new job to get access to details of the Nazi occupation.
To save her husband, Emma’s relationship with the Kommandant intensifies. By doing this, she risks not only her own safety but also the lives of the people she loves.
The Kommandant’s Girl is an international bestseller.
Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay (2006)
Sarah, a ten-year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup in Paris in 1942.
Just before the police come to get them, Sarah wants to protect her little brother. She locks him in a cupboard and takes the key with her, thinking she will be back in a few hours.
In 2002, it is the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv’. Journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s history; the French police rounded up thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. They sent them all to concentration camps.
While investigating the events, Julia stumbles onto a trail of family-secrets that connects her to Sarah.
Julia wants to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from the days she spent locked up at the Vel’ d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond.
In her New York Times’ bestseller, Tatiana De Rosnay reveals the guilt that is brought on by long-buried secrets and the damage that the truth can inflict when they finally come unraveled.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (2005)
Upon opening this award-winning bestseller, you will find an introduction from Death. Death is kind, gentle, and feels sympathy for his victims. But of course, this book is not about Death, it is about Liesel Meminger.
Her little brother passes away just before her mother leaves Liesel, only nine years old, with foster parents in a small German town.
To cope with the losses in her life, Liesel becomes a thief. Her first theft takes place at her brother’s funeral.
While standing by her brother’s graveside, something draws her attention. She picks up a book, which was partially hidden in the snow. It is ‘The Gravedigger’s Handbook’. This marks the beginning of her love affair with books and words.
One day, Max Vandenburg, a 24-year-old Jewish boxer, shows up at the family’s doorstep.
Liesel’s foster father owes Max’s dead father a favor, so they house Max in the basement.
Liesel and Max become friends as he teaches her to read but their lives reflect the war’s chaos and devastation.
We Were the Lucky Ones, Georgia Hunter (2017)
This New York Times’ bestseller tells the story of the assimilated Polish Kurc family. In the spring of 1939, three generations of the family are doing their best to live normal lives, even as the shadow of war grows closer.
The whole family lives together, but when the Second World War breaks out, the family is scattered around Europe and beyond.
Driven by a strong will to survive, the Kurcs must rely on hope and inner strength in order to see each other again.
One family member gets arrested, one attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, by working for hours on empty stomachs in the factories of a ghetto, or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight.
But, throughout five and a half years of horror, not one member of the family ever panics. The human spirit can endure, even in the face of the 20th century’s darkest moment.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris (2018)
This international bestseller tells the story of Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov. He is a Slovakian Jew, who is transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
When the guards find out that Lale speaks different languages, he is put to work as a tattooist. He has to permanently mark his fellow prisoners.
As a tattooist, Lale has a privileged position, which he uses to help his fellow prisoners. Risking his own life, he exchanges jewels and money from murdered Jews for food, to keep the prisoners alive.
One day, prisoner 32407 stands in line waiting to get her number tattooed on her arm. Lale comforts her, and they fall in love with each other.
Lale promises her that they will both survive the camp and get married when they get out.
This book is inspired by the true story of Lale Sokolov. He was interviewed as a Holocaust survivor.
When Lale was liberated from the camp, he emigrated to America. He only told his story after his wife’s death, because he was afraid to be seen as a collaborator.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)
Praised by the New York Times, this novel tells the story of writer Juliet Ashton. In 1946, in the shadow of the Second World War, she is looking for a new subject for her next book.
She finds it in the letters of a man she never met, a native of the channel island of Guernsey. He finds her name written inside a book.
Juliet exchanges letters with him and gets drawn into his world.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is founded as an alibi, when its members who were busted breaking curfew by the Germans, when their island was occupied during the war.
The club has a diverse cast of characters, but all are literature-lovers.
Julie sets off to Guernsey while getting to know the society’s members, their island, their taste in books, and the impact of the German occupation on their lives.
Suite française, Irene Nemirovsky (2004)
Irene Nemirovsky wasa Jewish pre-Second World War bestselling author who was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unfortunately, she died before her last work could be completed.
Two parts of the novel were already finished, and the handwritten manuscripts were hidden in her daughter’s suitcase that she took with her into hiding.
The first part of the novel, A Storm in June, opens in the chaos of the 1940 exodus from Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion.
Many people are thrown together under circumstances beyond their control. Sharing a will to survive, together they have to face the destruction of the world they know.
The second part, Dolce, takes place in a German-occupied provincial village east of Paris.
The villagers struggle to co-exist with the German soldiers who they are living among them. Some villagers choose resistance, others opt for collaboration.
Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada (1947)
This novel tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel. They live in a house in Berlin during the tyranny of Nazi rule.
When the couple receives a message saying that their beloved son has been killed fighting in France, they set up a silent campaign of resistance.
They start to spread postcards with anti-Hitler slogans. Most of the postcards are handed over to the Gestapo, and a deadly game of cat and mouse starts between the Quangels and Gestapo inspector Escherich.
When two criminals also get involved, deception, betrayal, and murder ensue.
Based on a true story, Elise and Otto Hampel were arrested in 1942 and then executed. Fallada read the files, which included photographs of the couple. This novel is the result.
Fallada wrote his novel in 1946, in postwar Berlin. A few months later, he passed away.
This novel is his “pièce de résistance” for ‘small’ people against the Nazi rule. Fallada was the first one to write about post-war Germany.
Article written by Karin Koersvelt, The Netherlands
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