On September 2, 1945, the Japanese signed the document officially ending World War II. Now, seventy-five years later, many of those who experienced this war are gone. Many of those who fought for this country, lived through the Holocaust, or contributed to our victory in World War II are no longer witnesses. So, all of us must become witnesses by reading those human stories of resilience, courage, persistence and sacrifice that illuminate this important time in our history.
While I have included fictional work below—thirteen books in total, and many based on true events and real people, places and experiences—I must also mention two classic nonfiction titles that should be on anyone’s list who wishes to get inside the heart and mind of courageous heroes of the Holocaust: Night by Elie Wiesel and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
Below is a list of novels that each illuminate the history of World War II. They are listed alphabetically by author.[This list has been edited to remove a previously included title after a legitimate concern about the book was brought to our attention. – Ed.]
Resistance Women by Jennifer Chiaverini
This is an enthralling historical saga that recreates the danger, romance, and sacrifice of an era and brings to life one courageous, passionate American—Mildred Fish Harnack—and her circle of women friends who waged a clandestine battle against Hitler in Nazi Berlin. For years, Mildred’s network stealthily fights to bring down the Third Reich from within, sacrificing their own lives and liberty to fight injustice and defend the oppressed. But when Nazi radio operatives detect an errant Russian signal, the Harnack resistance cell is exposed, with fatal consequences.
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa
On May 13, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, a transatlantic ocean liner, set sail from Germany to Cuba with many Jewish passengers fleeing Hitler. Hannah Rosenthal, the daughter of wealthy aristocrats, was twelve when she boarded the St. Louis with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas refuge they had been promised was an illusion. Despite all best efforts, they were turned away from Cuba, the US, and Canada, forcing the ship to return to Europe, where many of the passengers would die in Hitler’s death camps. Correa puts a human face on this shameful episode. Seven decades later, Anna Rosen receives a package from an unknown relative in Cuba that inspires her and her mother to travel to Cuba to learn the truth about their family’s mysterious and tragic past.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Two teenagers are caught up in the frenzy and the mortal dangers of World War II: a German boy who is extraordinarily clever with all things electronic, and a blind French girl who reads Jules Verne. Author Anthony Doerr explores the trajectory of their lives in parallel, moving them inexorably toward a fateful intersection in the book’s surprising climax.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Based on a true story and set in a small town in France, The Nightingale weaves a riveting tale around the heroism of Isabelle, a young woman who serves as a key player in the underground Resistance, and her sister, Viann, who is back home under German occupation, near starvation and struggling to save Jewish children. The two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, are each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France. The novel offers a haunting glimpse of what it was like for women to survive during WWII.
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
This is a remarkable work of fiction based on the true story of German industrialist and war profiteer, Oskar Schindler who saved more Jews—thirteen hundred—from the gas chambers than any other single person during World War II. Confronted with the horror of the extermination camps, Schindler gambled his life and fortune to rescue. The author uses the actual testimony of the Schindlerjuden—Schindler’s Jews—to brilliantly portray the courage and cunning of a good man in the midst of unspeakable evil.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts. This novel remained hidden and unknown for sixty-four years; its author, a highly successful Jewish writer living in Paris, was arrested and deported to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died.
Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride
Miracle at St. Anne is a universal tale of courage and redemption inspired by a little-known historic event. Toward the end of World War II, four Buffalo Soldiers from the Army’s Negro 92nd Division find themselves separated from their unit and behind enemy lines. Risking their lives for a country in which they are treated with less respect than the enemy they are fighting, they discover humanity in the small Tuscan village of St. Anna di Stazzema—in the peasants who shelter them, in the unspoken affection of an orphaned child, in a newfound faith in humankind. Even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, they—and we—learn to see the small miracles of life.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
A remarkable tale of the island of Guernsey during the German Occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name. Told in an epistolary format, the novel reveals much about the aftermath of World War II in England. Poignant and keenly observed, it is a literary masterpiece filled with love, war, and the nourishment that comes from good books and good friends.
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
This is not one of those predictable tales of the heroic but doomed Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The action takes place in the months leading up to the uprising. The story revolves around the life of a boy named Aron, the son of a poor Jewish couple from a Polish shtetl near the Lithuanian border. Aron is eight years old when the tale begins in 1936, but the book focuses on the tragic months in 1942 when he is thirteen. As the Nazis progressively shrink the borders of the Ghetto and starve its residents, Aron and his gang of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds turn to petty crime in an effort to survive.
MAUS I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
The first installment of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel was acclaimed as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” by the Wall Street Journal and “the first masterpiece in comic book history” by the New Yorker. A brutally moving work of art, Maus recounts the chilling experiences of the author’s father during the Holocaust, with Jews drawn as wide-eyed mice and Nazis as menacing cats. Maus is a haunting tale within a tale, weaving the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father into an astonishing retelling of one of history’s most unspeakable tragedies.
War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
This book, along with its prequel The Winds of War, tells the story of one US Navy officer’s family in the years immediately before and during World War II. Noted for its historical accuracy and emotional intensity, Herman Wouk’s spellbinding narrative captures the tide of global events, as well as all the drama, romance, heroism, and tragedy of World War II, as it immerses the reader in the lives of a single American family drawn into the very center of the war’s maelstrom.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief provides a lens into 1939 Nazi Germany as death marches forward. Australian author Markus Zusak tells his story through a foster girl living outside Munich whose meager existence comes from stealing. When she encounters books, which she cannot resist, and with the help of her accordion-playing father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Linda’s new book, A Ritchie Boy, out now from She Writes Press! – Ed.
A Ritchie Boy by Linda Kass
1938. Eli Stoff and his parents, Austrian Jews, escape to America just after the Nazis take over their homeland. Within five years, Eli enlists in the US Army and, thanks to his understanding of the German language and culture, joins thousands of others like him who became known as Ritchie Boys, young men who work undercover in Intelligence on the European front to help the Allies win World War II. In A Ritchie Boy, different characters tell interrelated stories that, together, form a cohesive narrative about the circumstances and people Eli encounters from Vienna to New York, from Ohio to Maryland, and then to war-torn Europe before he returns to the heartland of his new country to set down his roots.