Arts & Culture

12 Books and Films That Put a Different Spin on the Holocaust

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and if you’re like most of us, you’ve already seen Schindler’s List, Escape From Sobibor, and Life is Beautiful. You read Number the Stars and Anne Frank’s diary in middle school, and you know the … Read More

By / May 1, 2008

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and if you’re like most of us, you’ve already seen Schindler’s List, Escape From Sobibor, and Life is Beautiful. You read Number the Stars and Anne Frank’s diary in middle school, and you know the basics from the Nuremberg laws and the Warsaw ghetto to Bergen-Belsen and Terezin. Here are some books and movies with distinctively different ways of looking at the events of World War II, and the way they still affect us today.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink: A German teenager has an affair with an older woman and later realizes she was involved in some of the worst Nazi cruelty. Beautifully and simply written (translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway) it stays away from the detailed descriptions of Jewish suffering, and instead wonders about the complicity of average Germans, and how to make amends.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman: A fictionalized account of the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinisky, who hid more than 300 Jews and Polish resisters in the Warsaw Zoo that they ran. I’m only half way through, but the writing is fantastic, and the subtext and commentary about how people, animals, and the way we treat each other is subtle and fascinating.

The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman: Spiegelman produced what the Wall Street Journal called “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust.” He tells the story of his rocky relationship with his father, Vladek Spiegelman, and intersperses the story of his father’s survival in WW II Europe. Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize.

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn: Part Memoir part history, the book is the story of Mendelsohn’s journey to find out as much as he could about the six members of his family who died in the Holocaust. Instead of focusing on big numbers and statistics he uses a microscope to look closely at just a few people, and the results are tender and moving. Listen to a Nextbook podcast interview with David Mendelsohn here.

Somewhere in Germany by Stefanie Zweig: Zweig’s family escaped the Nazis by moving to Kenya, but they return to Germany once the war is over, and the novel, translated by Marlies Comjean, looks at postwar Germany, the anti-Semitism that remains, the difficulties of returning home, and the pain of exile. Otto Frank has a memorable cameo appearance. A gorgeous sequel to Nowhere in Africa (see below).

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen: 12-Year-old Hannah travels back in time from a Passover Seder in 1988 to Poland in World War II. As Chaya she is sent to a concentration camp where she learns about growing up and survival in a harrowing and poignant young adult novel. They made a movie with Kirsten Dunst, but the book is much better, and accessible to middle schoolers and adults alike.

Bent Directed by Sean Mathias: Max, a gay man in Germany at the start of WW II is sent to Dachau, where he pretends to be Jewish, instead of gay, and then falls in love with an openly gay prisoner. An effective look at the way the Holocaust effected other minorities.

The Counterfeiters Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzsky: The story of a German man, Sally Sorowitsch, in a concentration camp where he’s forced to help the Nazis produce fake foreign currency in order to weaken the Allies’ economy. When a friend and fellow counterfeiter refuses to help the Nazis Sorowitsch is faced with a dilemma that could mean life or death. Winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign film.

Nowhere in Africa Directed by Caroline Link: Based on the book by Stefanie Zweig, the movie tells the story of Zweig’s family’s departure from Germany on the eve of the Holocaust, and their strange and difficult lives in Kenya, where they enjoy relative safety from the Nazis, but must wonder constantly about the rest of their families. Winner of the Oscar for best foreign film in 2003.

Forgiving Dr. Mengele Directed by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh: A documentary about Eva Mozes Kor, who, along with her twin sister Miriam, was used as a guinea pig by Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz. In the 80s, Kor persuaded former Nazi doctor, Hans Mnuch, to return to Auschwitz with her to declare that the Holocaust happened. During a press conference at that event Kor said she forgave Munch, and when she was asked if she could forgive Dr. Megele, she said said yes. The movie looks at the ways we forgive, the meaning of forgiveness, and how we look back on a painful history.

The Rape of Europa Directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham: A documentary narrated by Joan Allen, this film looks at the devastating effects of Nazi art theft during World War II, and the heroic efforts of American military personnel, and American art historians who try to recover and return as much of the lost art as they can.

Walk on Water Directed by Eytan Fox: An Israeli film about a contemporary Israeli secret service agent tasked with following around the grandchildren of a Nazi war criminals. A beautiful and provocative movie, it looks at everything from what it means to be an Israeli man, to sexuality, to forgiveness.