Sunday, March 15, 2020

Book Reviews | Six Different Views on World War II

Since the first of the year, I've read six books that offer six different perspectives on World War II and its atrocities - four fictionalized, one memoir, and one narrative non-fiction. The characters in these books range from a US Ambassador to Germany to one of Schindler's Jews to individuals involved in the resistance to those who ended up in concentration camps.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larsen is narrative non-fiction and my least favorite of this batch of books (despite the fact that I have enjoyed all the other books I've read by the author). This book begins in 1933 and covers the years leading up to World War II. It follows the steps of the new US Ambassador William E. Dodd. Much of the primary research came from writings by the ambassador's daughter, Martha, who (quite honestly) I did not find likable at all. Here's more detail from the book's blurb:

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

In June of 1940, less than a year after the war began, the Germans swept into Paris and set up headquarters in The Ritz Hotel. Blanche Azuello is the wife of the hotel's director and her story is told in Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin. This is a fictionalized account based on a real-life American woman secretly working for the French Resistance. I enjoyed this book and learned about a luxurious hotel (The Paris Ritz, which is still in business today) and got a peek into the resistance efforts in the City of Lights. And, there's also love and suspense and mystery, all of which is alluded to in the book's description:

Nothing bad can happen at the Ritz; inside its gilded walls every woman looks beautiful, every man appears witty. The Auzellos are the mistress and master of the Ritz, allowing the glamour and glitz to take their minds off their troubled marriage, and off the secrets that they keep from their guests—and each other. Until June 1940, when the German army sweeps into Paris, setting up headquarters at the Ritz. Suddenly, with the likes of Hermann Goëring moving into suites once occupied by royalty, Blanche and Claude must navigate a terrifying new reality. One that entails even more secrets and lies. One that may destroy the tempestuous marriage between this beautiful, reckless American and her very proper Frenchman. 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris was published a couple of years ago. This is a fictionalized account of the life of Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, a Jew who was put to work as the tattooist of Auschwitz in 1942 because he spoke numerous languages. The author interviewed and spent time getting to know this real-life Holocaust survivor, then turned that information into a novel. Mr. Sokolov and his wife both survived the concentration camps of World War II and afterwards made a life for themselves in Australia. He did not share his stories (as many have over the years) until after his wife's death because he feared being perceived as a Nazi collaborator. I found this book very disturbing because the tone is much different than other Holocaust survivor stories that I've read; I can easily see why he kept his story a secret for so many years. Here's a little more about the book:

Imprisoned for over two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive. A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov's experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowery is set in Denmark and tells the story of a powerful act of Danish resistance in September of 1943. This is a young adult fiction book with fiction characters; however, the bold and daring actions of the Danes actually occurred resulting in 90 percent of Danish Jews surviving the Holocaust! I've read this book several times since it was first published in 1989 (and won the Newberry Medal and the National Jewish Book Award in 1990). If you've never read it, pick up a copy today to read how:

As the German troops begin their campaign to "relocate" all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war.

Leon Leyson was the youngest member on Schindler's List of Jews. He was only 13-years-old and had to stand on a wooden box to work the machinery inside Schindler's factory. His story is told in the memoir, The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on Schindler's List. Mr. Leyson rarely spoke of his experiences until after the Schindler's List movie came out in 1993. After that time, he spoke publicly about his past to audiences in the United States and Canada. He was a high school teacher in California for 39 years; this book was published after his death (in 2013). I had not heard of this book until Robbie gave it to me as a Christmas gift last year, but I was immediately intrigued by the book's description:

This, the only memoir published by a former Schindler’s list child, perfectly captures the innocence of a small boy who goes through the unthinkable. Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) was only ten years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and his family was forced to relocate to the Krakow ghetto. Ultimately, it was the generosity and cunning of one man, Oskar Schindler, who saved Leon Leyson’s life, and the lives of his mother, his father, and two of his four siblings, by adding their names to his list of workers in his factory—a list that became world renowned: Schindler’s list. Told with an abundance of dignity and a remarkable lack of rancor and venom, The Boy on the Wooden Box is a legacy of hope, a memoir unlike anything you’ve ever read.

We Were the Lucky Ones is the amazing fictionalized tale of three generations of one Polish Jewish family, the Kurcs, who all survived the Holocaust. The author, Georgia Hunter, is the granddaughter of one of the members of this "lucky" family, although she did not know about this history until after her grandfather passed away. The book encompasses all the war years and alternates between various family members who were scattered throughout Poland, Siberia, France, Palestine - so many locations and situations that it is truly a miracle when they eventually reunite as a family! It turns out that the author's grandfather probably had it the "easiest" of all his siblings during the war, yet he rarely talked about that time in his life. I honestly wonder why the author chose to write this as fiction once she had unearthed these stories and interviewed survivors and their progeny, but it is a fantastic read and very well-written! I highly recommend reading about this family:

As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, either by working grueling hours on empty stomachs in the factories of the ghetto or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight. Driven by an unwavering will to survive and by the fear that they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, ingenuity, and inner strength to persevere.

Have you read any of these books? Or others with different perspectives on World War II? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.


  1. Thanks for the book reviews. I have read Number The Stars. I just finished a book called the Post Mistress (novel) regarding an undelivered letter during WWII & the outcomes of that action. It was an ok book. I can never read more than 1 at a time of anything to do with WWI or WWII, I must take breaks of other reads in between. Mr Man & I wonder what books will be written about this time in the world, the health & wealth of COVID-19.

  2. Number the Stars is one of my favorite books. I enjoy Eric Larsen's books, but haven't read this one. The last WWII book I read was The Nightingale which I loved. I think that was three or four years ago. (We were in Florida visiting my MIL and it's been awhile!)

    1. I remember reading and enjoying The Nightingale several years ago as well.

  3. I've read We Were the Lucky Ones and The Tattooist of Auschwitz - liked the former, the latter not to much. I haven't read Number the Stars but have added it to my To Be Read list.

  4. Tim loves Erik Larson books, but has not read that one. It was fun to read the reviews but I absolutely positively cannot add to my TBR list.


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