Annette Berkovits and I participated in an online writing group several years ago, and although we’ve never met in person, we’ve been writing friends ever since. Over the years, I came to understand she’s one very smart cookie with a fascinating past. I also became enchanted by her charming deceased father Nachman, the subject of her memoir In the Unlikeliest Places: How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags and Soviet Communism.
Annette has offered this list of 8 Powerful Reads About World War II and the Holocaust, just in time for the 74th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising on April 19th, which Annette describes as a singular act of resistance in which sick and starving Jewish ghetto inmates mustered the courage and strength to fire upon German troops in a desperate act to avoid being forced onto trains bound for extermination camps. The anniversary of this uprising is especially meaningful to Annette as her uncle Natan Libeskind was one of the leaders and her maternal grandmother (along with cousins, aunts and uncles) was an inmate in the Warsaw ghetto. Read on to discover her recommendations.
Perhaps because I’ve just recently launched my latest book, Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator, I am in the confession mode. As an author my “job” is to write. However, as anyone who knows anything about writing will tell you, a writer must also be a reader. And not just a garden variety reader, but a passionate one. For me, this dual role is a constant struggle. When I am writing, I think about all the books piling up on my shelves, cabinets, end tables and night stand, some gathering dust for days. When I am reading, I am thinking of the characters in my draft manuscript calling for me to rescue them off the sinking boat, rotten marriage, illness, or whatever trouble I’ve tossed them into. Such thoughts get in the way of serious reading. OK, so now that I’ve come clean, I can confess that I don’t read nearly enough.
G. Elizabeth, my gracious host, has invited me to share with you some books that were of special appeal to me. Today, I’ll share with you a few book titles that made a substantial contribution to my research for In the Unlikeliest Places, as well as books I think any avid reader would be interested in. You’ll notice, I specifically didn’t say ‘enjoy’ because the subject of man’s inhumanity to man can hardly be called enjoyable, though surely, we must know about it. Seventy-eight years later we are still thinking and writing about a war that engulfed the world and killed sixty million people. If we want to avoid a WWIII, likely a catastrophe on an even larger scale, we must look back and understand what happened, why it happened and what it tells us about today’s world.
“Nothing belongs to the past. Everything is still part of the present and could become part of the future again.”
—Fritz Bauer, German prosecutor and attorney general, explaining his relentless push to make his countrymen acknowledge the crimes committed in their name during the Third Reich
The Nazi Hunters – Andrew Nagorski (Simon and Schuster 2016)
After the Nuremberg trials and the start of the Cold War, most of the victors in World War II lost interest in prosecuting Nazi war criminals. The Nazi Hunters focuses on the small band of men and women who refused to allow those crimes to be forgotten—and who were determined to track the perpetrators down to the furthest corners of the earth. During the course of their efforts, their goals transformed from a desire for revenge to a struggle for justice.
From the Washington Post: “Nagorski is a veteran author and foreign correspondent whose Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power is the alpha to the omega of The Nazi Hunters. . . [a] deep and sweeping account of a relentless search for justice that began in 1945 and is only now coming to an end.”
What Annette says: This book is important in its own right because it is meticulously researched (something of essence in the new era of fake news!) But it is also a page-turner with dramatic stories. The author, Andrew Nagorski is a journalist’s journalist. He served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw and Berlin. He is author of many books and countless articles. Don’t take my word for it just because Andy Nagorski is my friend.
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning – Timothy Snyder (Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Crown Publishing, division of Penguin Random House LLC. 2015)
This 463- page award winner, according to Henry Kissinger, is “Part history, part political theory and a challenging reinterpretation.” It has been called groundbreaking, authoritative, provocative, convincing and eloquent. Snyder concludes that we have misunderstood modernity and endangered the future, and that our 21st century ideologies are closer to Hitler’s than we like to admit.
From The Wall Street Journal: “Black Earth is mesmerizing . . . Remarkable . . . Gripping . . . Disturbingly vivid . . . Mr. Snyder is sometimes mordant, often shocked, always probing.”
What Annette says: For me, one whose family lost 58 members in the Holocaust, The Black Earth was painful to read, and much of it was all too familiar a territory, but I gleaned from it some amazing insights. In the memoir of my father, I write about how he chose to run away from the Nazi onslaught on Poland in the fall of 1939. I knew it was a risky endeavor, but I hadn’t realized just how dangerous. In Snyder’s book, I discovered that fifty thousand people were killed during the fall of 1939 while trying to escape. My father was lucky, and because of his courage and luck, I am here.
Address Unknown – Katherine Kressmann Taylor (Washington Square Press, a Publication of Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1938)
First published in 1938, Address Unknown resonated within the United States and changed many Americans’ views of the growing conflict in Europe. This revealing tale of genocidal fascism and its consequences remains as sadly relevant today as when it was first written.
From The New York Times Book Review: “This modern story is perfection itself. It is the most effective indictment of Nazism to appear in fiction.”
What Annette says: This tiny book packs a wallop. This is probably THE shortest book on the subject of WWII that I have ever read and one of the best. In this fictional account, two friends–Max and Martin–find themselves engulfed by WWII. One lives in San Francisco and one in Germany, and the entire book is a series of letters exchanged between them. First published in Story magazine, it caused an immediate sensation, and when it was published as an individual book it sold 50,000 copies — a number unheard of in those years. But when WWII began, Address Unknown landed on a list of banned books in Germany, and it disappeared from public consciousness for sixty years. The message of this book is timeless and significant. If your reading time is as limited as mine, don’t miss it.
Five other books Annette recommends about WWII and the Holocaust
Night – Elie Wiesel (Hill and Wang revised edition 2016)
First published in 1960, this is a horrific autobiographical account of a teenager’s survival in the Nazi death camps. It became the first of a trilogy. Wiesel won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story – Diane Ackerman (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007)
A true story about zookeepers in Warsaw, Poland who saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands. Now a motion picture starring Jessica Chastain.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank (Everyman’s Library, Reprint edition 2010)
The diary off a young girl penned while she and her family hid in the Netherlands for two years from the Nazis. First published in 1947.
MAUS – Art Spiegelman (Pantheon 1996)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story.
Survival in Auschwitz: If This Is a Man – Primo Levi (BN Publishing 2007)
An autobiographical account by a chemist who spent ten months in Auschwitz before the camp was liberated and who was one of only twenty inmates who left the camps alive.
For bonus points, Annette says to check out these films:
An epic documentary that recounts the story of the Holocaust through interviews with both perpetrators and survivors. Written and directed by Claude Lanzmann.
In 1944, an Auschwitz prisoner charged with burning the corpses of his own people seeks redemption by trying to salvage the remains of a boy he believes to be his son. Written and directed by László Nemes.
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Annette Berkovits says that after reading these books, or even simply perusing them in the library, you may be in the mood for something lighter, like her recently released memoir/nature book, Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator. Filled with fun anecdotes about a variety of animals from pumas to king cobras, this is the perfect book for animal lovers who have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a zoo. (In case you’re wondering what on earth this book has to do with the serious books Annette recommended above, it’s this: As a child growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, Annette needed something in her life to cure the miasma that hung over her early years. The discovery of the vibrant animal life at the Bronx Zoo proved to be the salve she needed.)