If I had to rank my all-time favorite books, there would no doubt be at least 7 out of the top 10 that fell in the “WWII-era Historical Fiction” category. I really don’t know why, but for the longest time, I’ve loved historical fiction, and especially those set during the Holocaust. Maybe it’s because I fell in love with Anne Frank after reading her diary in sixth grade. Maybe because I played a very awkward Tzeitel in a seventh-grade production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which then caused me to fall into a Jewish research rabbit hole. Whatever the reason, I’ve spent a good amount of my reading years enjoying books set during the Holocaust. And throughout the years, I’ve discovered a few life-changers that I think everyone should read, at least once.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
This is a great book for any age. It moves quickly, is easy to follow, yet also descriptive and captivating as heck. It follows the lives of two young girls in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen and illustrates what friends are willing to do to protect each other. For me, there really is just something about a child’s perspective that is enthralling. And especially during wartime, reading little Annemarie’s story of bravery and standing up to Nazi soldiers will make everyone feel like they can conquer just about anything.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This is by far one of my top-three books of all time. I would say that, as cheesy as this sounds, this book changed my life. At the core, this book is about the intrinsic power of books to touch people across unthinkable circumstances. The novel follows the journey of young Liesel, a foster child living near Munich. And while times are hard for Liesel and her foster family, the one thing Liesel cannot keep her hands off of are books–so much so that she begins stealing them whenever given the chance, hence the title. The perspective from which this novel is told is one of the many reasons it has stuck with me, and I just want everyone to read it, it’s that good.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Look, this is a Pulitzer-Prize winner for a reason: it’s freaking beautiful. Doerr somehow manages to entwine two seemingly opposite characters together into a story that will leave your heart racing until the last page. Blind French girl Marie-Laure and young German orphan Werner collide in a world where jewels aren’t the only valuables, and family extends farther than you think. This is such a beautiful novel in part because it takes you hostage, you fall in love not only with the characters, but with the relationships the characters have with each other. In particular, Marie-Laure’s love for her father was what held me breathless.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
This is the haunting tale of the strength of love, the naivety of childhood, and the introspective nature of humans. Set in both 1942 and 2002 Paris, Sarah’s Key follows two tales: one of a sister, Sarah, who locks her brother in a secret hiding space when their family is arrested by Nazi soldiers, thinking she’ll be right back, and one of a modern journalist, Julia, uncovering her own key to France’s dark past. “Riveting” is probably the best word I can think of to describe this novel, as it had me hooked from the get-go. It’s brutal honesty and Julia’s harsh reality were what really drew me in.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Because I myself have sisters, this book really resonated with me. It follows two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle in Nazi-occupied France, and how both war and love have the ability to transform and strengthen people. Vianne is forced to fend for herself and her daughter when her husband is sent to the front, while younger sister Isabelle struggles with feeling powerless to defend her home country. Isabelle really feels tangible to me, she feels like someone I could easily know, or even be. This novel is about what we’re all capable of, and who we’re willing to die, or kill, for.
Of course, there are an inordinate amount of Holocaust-era novels, and so many of them are beautiful. So, if you’re ready, and willing, to be carried away into a world not so far away from our own, yet vastly different, dive into one of these novels. And if you plow through this list, I’d love to recommend more, because WWII historical fiction is not lacking in either quality or quantity.