Three Powerful Books for Holocaust Memorial Day

Books featuring the Holocaust, including legal history and personal accounts

Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day and, for as long as I can remember, this leads to annual news stories not just about commemorative events, but about the ignorance that a lot of us have around the Holocaust and everyone affected by it.

For a prime example, see the idiotic posers at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, called out by the brilliant Yolocaust web project, which has now been taken down after mixed but generally positive feedback.

Sadly, anti-Semitism has never totally disappeared. There have been reports of Holocaust survivors being abused in the street and, in a cruel modern twist, Jewish Twitter users being targeted and mercilessly trolled because of their religion and heritage. Even Google search results have been manipulated by the far-right.

Meanwhile, as author and lawyer Philippe Sands said in late 2016, “You have to compare the language of then [the Nazi period] and now – Trump uses the same language as Goering or Hitler. We need to be alert to what might happen… we have to call out racism in our friends and relatives.”

So how can you learn about the Holocaust today? I’ve picked three very different books for your reading list.

Trieste novel by Dasa Drndic and its book covers, with photo of Trieste in Italy
As well as giving you a sense of the book’s themes (spot Trieste, bottom left, and San Sabba, bottom right, credit Pier Luigi Mora), I wanted to share some of the cover art from different editions. ‘Sonnenschein’ is the original German title.

For the Holocaust in Italy: Trieste, by Daša Drndić

This is a full-on literary experiment – “document fiction”, as author Daša Drndić calls it – blending fact and fiction in one of history’s most fluctuating cities. Trieste has changed hands many times, not least during and after WWII, and its inhabitants had to adapt quickly each time. New place names, new language, new social signals to learn – are you Italian, Austro-Hungarian, Slovenian or something else?

The main character, Haya Tedeschi, is a Jewish woman living near Trieste. She survives the war, but her baby son (whose father is a Nazi) is snatched in the street. We meet her sixty years on, still searching for him. She also learns about prominent connections to the Holocaust: for example, how Madeleine Albright discovered her hidden Jewish roots sixty years later.

A chilling mid-section of the book is simply page upon page of Italian Holocaust victims’ names, giving the slaughter a sense of local scale. Trieste’s identity under the Nazis was its most shocking, as a local rice mill, San Sabba, became Italy’s only extermination camp in 1943; it’s estimated 25,000 people passed through here to death camps like Buchenwald and Dachau. Risiera di San Sabba had its own crematorium by 1944, to remove traces of people gassed in specially adapted vans nearby.  The site has been a civic museum since 1975.

Through Haya’s son, Trieste explores the Lebensborn initiative, which isn’t as widely known as it should be. Aryan-looking children were taken from their parents and rehomed with Nazis, their identities and futures corrupted.

Bad Arolsen, the centre of the International Tracing Service, focuses on ‘mislaid lives’ and tries to reunite family members displaced by war. 3am magazine has an excellent long-read review of Trieste for anyone on the fence about buying this book.

East West Street book set in Lviv, Ukraine, in WWII and beyond
A worthy winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. You can see modern Lviv in the top right corner. The bottom left corner shows an image from the Bundesarchiv, taken in what was Lemberg in 1941. Top left is a page of original notes by Raphael Lemkin.

For the Holocaust across Europe and in Legal History: East West Street, by Philippe Sands

The winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2016, Philippe Sands’ book is, like Drndić’s, genre-defining. It blends biography with legal history and reportage, as well as the writer’s own reactions to the very personal events he describes. A human rights lawyer by trade, Sands obviously knows his way around the legal concepts involved, but he brings them to life without bombarding the reader or making the book a dry read. In fact, it’s emotive.

I was lucky enough to hear Sands speak at the end of last year, and learn more about the interwoven stories of his grandfather, Leon Buchholz, and the ground-breaking lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht (who established the phrase ‘crimes against humanity’ at the Nuremberg Trials) and Raphael Lemkin (who created the concept of ‘genocide’: destruction of a group), as well as Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter, two senior Nazis.

All these men had a link to Lviv, a city now in Ukraine, but which – like Trieste – changed hands all too frequently. At times, it was Lvov, or Lwow, or Lemberg. Today there are hardly any Jewish people in Lviv, because most were wiped out by the Nazis, including members of the Buchholz, Lauterpacht and Lemkin families; Lemkin lost 49 relatives.

Sands’ own fate rested on the actions of a mysterious Christian missionary, Miss Tilney, who brought Sands’ mother (a baby at the time) to the UK. Miss Tilney’s incredible story, and her courage when later imprisoned as an enemy alien, will stay with you.

As Sands points out, Lauterpacht and Lemkin have been largely forgotten, though he will unveil plaques to both of them in Lviv later this year, having brought them to public attention in East West Street. Meanwhile, there is no museum to the victims of Nazism in Lviv. Instead, Sands notes, there’s just a zoological museum at the university.

Further afield, in Żółkiew, you’d be forgiven for not realising that a mass grave lurks beneath a woodland clearing, holding 3,500 victims who died because they ‘happened to be a member of the wrong group’ (p.387). Fortunately, East West Street reveals these hidden truths, which are further explored in Sands’ acclaimed documentary, My Nazi Legacy.

Tadeusz Pankiewicz's book, about the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, or Pod Orlem, at the edge of the Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust.
Again, the cover art really varies for the Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy. Personally, I love the Italian edition – those jars on shelves really catch your eye, and the actual pharmacy would have looked like this.

For an inside view of the Holocaust: The Kraków Ghetto Pharmacy, by Tadeusz Pankiewicz

Kraków’s ghetto was officially established in the Podgorze district in March 1941. Like the other ghetto areas established in Nazi-occupied territory, it held thousands of Jews in unsanitary and cramped living conditions, with meagre rations to live on. For example, the Warsaw ghetto had a daily limit of 253 calories per person, falling to 180 calories. Today, health professionals suggest 2,000 calories for women, or 1,200 if you’re dieting; figures are higher for men.

Gradually vanishing freedom, from frozen bank accounts to frequent death threats, kept the Jews powerless. By December 1941, they had to surrender their fur coats to the Nazis – a huge sacrifice in the harsh Polish winter.

One man witnessed the anti-Semitism first-hand, as an outsider with a unique perspective: Dr. Tadeusz Pankiewicz ran Pod Orłem Pharmacy, a.k.a. the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, which happened to sit on the edge of the ghetto boundary. His business, which remained open during the occupation, helped Jewish people hide their belongings, read messages and news from the outside world and, where possible, it helped them escape to safety.

Pankiewicz’s prose is chatty and, though anecdote-heavy, it’s easy to read. There are tiny details deciding on people’s fates: the hair dye sold at the pharmacy that concealed their grey hair and saw them pronounced fit for work; the civil court summonses supplied by Pankiewicz’s lawyer friend, to save people from the ghetto’s clutches. The overall picture is remarkable, and you feel Pankiewicz can’t quite believe he made it through the occupation unscathed.

This book also gets to the heart of the ghetto’s inner workings. Some Jewish people assisted the Nazis in running the ghetto, hoping their cooperation would result in better living conditions and maybe a way out of the horror; some even turned traitor and reported Jews living in hiding in the outside world.

The Jewish council (Judenrat), reported to the Gestapo; a special police force, the Ordnungsdienst (OD), did likewise. What the informers and enforcers didn’t realise was that they’d never be more than disposable pawns to the Nazis. One informant was Aleksander Förster, a German Jew:

‘Hermann Heinrich [a Gestapo officer] was celebrating his promotion in the Gestapo building on Pomorska Street. Among the many gifts he received was a large basket of red roses and a congratulatory note from Förster. For a joke, Heinrich called the OD and ordered them to arrest Förster. Apparently, this was his way of making sure Förster knew that, in spite of everything, there was a marked difference between them – that he was a representative of the Herrenvolk and that Förster was of Jewish origin and, thus, an Untermensch.’ (p. 63).

The ghetto’s 15,000-20,000 residents were gradually removed, including 7,000 in a single day (1st June 1942), before the site was eventually liquidated in March 1943. Its residents had been sent to die, or to be worked to death, in various camps, such as nearby Płaszów, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec. From the two direct transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 549 people were registered for forced labour; 2,450 others were sent straight to the gas chambers.

Pankiewicz’s book reminds us of the ghetto’s slow stranglehold, those lives maliciously snubbed out. It also shows why Pankiewicz was recognised as one of the Righteous Among Nations by the Jewish community.

To find out more, I’d suggest visiting the Pharmacy Under the Eagle (Apteka Pod Orłem) museum, at 18 Bohaterów Getta Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta). You should also visit the chilling Pomorska Street museum and, of course, Oskar Schindler’s factory.

Further recommended reading:

  • In Pursuit: The Men and Women Who Hunted the Nazis, by Andrew Nagorski
  • Auschwitz, by Laurence Rees (and I look forward to reading his new book on the Holocaust, published yesterday)
  • If This is a Man, by Primo Levi