January 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a single day in which the people around the world can pause and remember that millions died in a madman’s bloody dream. One day in which we can all remember in hopes that it will never happen again.
If you would like to find inspiration in the people who survived, or empathy for those who did not, here are several books, films, and music about this terrible time in human history.
Elie Wiesel – “Night,“ “Dawn,“ “The Accident,“ “The Tale of a Niggun“
Best known for his writings about time spent in concentration camps, Wiesel three books “Night,” “Dawn,” and “The Accident” have long been seen as a trilogy of how the Holocaust was like for those in the camps, and how those who were imprisoned were affected by the experience later in life.
In 2020, a new book came out from Wiesel – the illustrated narrative poem “The Tale of a Niggun.” A niggun is a form of Jewish religious song. It is sung by a group and often has repeated syllables like “Bim-Bim-Bim” instead of words. Wiesel’s poem tells a story about the Jews in a ghetto having to choose ten of their own to be hanged.
Anne Frank – “The Diary of a Young Girl,” “Anne Frank’s Diary – The Graphic Adaptation”
The story of the Frank family hidden away in an attic has been a classic book for generations. It is an important way to feel the reality lived by too many Jewish people during the Second World War.
In 2018, Pantheon released a graphic novel version of the story with art done by David Polonsky. The adaptation was written by Ari Folman, who was able to envision life as Anne saw it, in all of its young wonderment and horrible inevitability.
Note: There are some staffers who feel a graphic novel is a disservice to this material and encourage readers to go for the original work.
Peter Hayes – “Why? Explaining the Holocaust“
This 2017 book is a hard slog in many ways. Hayes goes back to the beginning, answering questions about the animosity between Jews and seemingly everyone else throughout Europe – a situation that led to the German attempted genocide. This book is informative and very well written.
Primo Levi – “Survival at Auschwitz“
Levi was a Jewish- Italian Chemist who wrote many books chronicling his time in concentration camps. This book by Levi goes through the rules of the camp, and how people imprisoned there were able to find small ways to combat the evil they lived through.
Lois Lowry – “Number the Stars“
This 1989 novel about the Danish Resistance smuggling Jewish families to safety in Sweden has become a classic. Written for children in grades 3-5, this is wonderful first book for parents to share an honest accounting of the Holocaust.
William Heyen – “Shoah Train“
A 2004 finalist for the National Book Award, these poems are a remarkable look into the lives of those who would one day be gone and no longer able to share their stories.
Heather Morris – “The Tattooist of Auschwitz“
Based on interviews with Holocaust survivor Ludwig Sokolov, this 2018 book accounts the atrocities this man saw as he was made to permanently mark his fellow Jews. Over two-and-a-half years, Sokolov witnessed acts of heroism and barbary, eventually meeting the woman he spent a lifetime with.
David Nasaw – “The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War”
In May of 1945, as German forces surrendered to the Allied troops, millions of people – lost and homeless – overwhelmed Germany. After an exhaustive effort, a little more than a million remained homeless primarily because no one would allow the Jews in. Nasaw’s book is about how these million people were shuffled from place to place over six years until they were finally accepted somewhere.
Schindler’s List: Probably the best-known modern film about the Holocaust, this 1993 Steven Spielberg movie is about the Schindlerjuden or Schindler Jews who were saved through the actions of a German industrialist.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a 2008 film about two boys who meet under tragic circumstances. One is the son of a new commanding officer at Auschwitz, and the other is in the camp. The beauty of this movie is that the two boys have no judgment for each other.
Jojo Rabbit is a strange film in which a young German boy, who can’t quite make the cut in his Nazi training, finds an imaginary friend – who happens to be Adolf Hitler. While this movie is funny and irreverent, it also speaks to the humanity of one person learning to see another – a Jew – as more than the enemy.
Voyage of the Damned – made in 1976, this movie is based on the true story of the 937 Jewish people on the ocean liner St. Louis. These people left Germany in 1939 to find refuge in Havana, Cuba, only to be turned away from both Cuba and the U.S.
Swing Kids, released in 1993, is the story of two German high school students who try to be swing dancers at night while they are part of the Hitler Youth during the day.
Night and Fog, a title taken from the “Nacht und Nebel” program of the Nazis, is a short documentary film made by the French director Alain Resnais 10 years after the liberation of German camps. It shows the grounds of Auschwitz and Majdanek camps and describes the lives of prisoners. The words at the beginning of the film are French, but the subtitles are English and the images are unforgettable.
Majdanek Concentration Camp – This five part series on YouTube about Majdanek Concentration Camp in Poland documents the discoveries made when the Soviet Union liberated the camp in 1944.
The voices and songs of Holocaust survivors were refound and reassembled in Akron, Ohio. This YouTube video tells the tale of how these recordings of survivors were pulled off of thin strings of metal to be heard again.
Inspired by the words written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in Zakopane, Poland, Gorecki’s Third Symphony – also known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” – became the composer’s most well known work. Performed in 1992 to commemorate the memory of those lost to the Holocaust, this symphony became a commercial success worldwide, selling over one million copies.
Music of the Holocaust
For many victims of the Holocaust, music was the one things which kept them alive. The songs in this section of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum catalogue these notes like “audio snapshots” to remind the world of the suffering and emotional anguish these listeners felt firsthand.
In 2018, Lifegate, a benefit corporation focused on sustainability in Italy, published a list of songs with the following words: “There’s no room for anger, resignation, or desire for revenge in this playlist. There’s just the moral obligation of retracing and telling the stories that can’t go lost and forgotten all over again. We do so through music.”
By Sally K Lehman