Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank and Primo Levi

7 Harrowing Accounts By Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust

From 1939 to 1945, the German Nazi regime murdered approximately 11 million civilians. Of those 11 million, 6 million were Jews–6 million men, women, and children singled out to die solely because of the ethnic group into which they happened to have been born. Some of these books are memoirs by survivors; the others include a memoir by ta survivor’s son, a victim’s diary, and a work of fiction based on one survivor’s story. All are a testament to the permanent scars left by the Nazi decimation of the formerly large and diverse European Jewry. 



  1.  ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel


Night cover

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Elie Wiesel, a world famous political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, died in 2016 at the age of 87. But in 1944, Wiesel was a scared 15-year-old boy forcibly transported from his Transylvanian hometown to Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, watching helplessly while his mother and his sister were sent to the gas chambers, and his father succumbed to illness and exhaustion. This book, first published in French in 1955, would eventually bring Weisel acclaim as one of the most powerful perspectives on the Holocaust of European Jews.


  1. If This Is a Man’ and ‘The Truce’ by Primo Levi


If This Is a Man and The Truce cover

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At the same time a teenage Wiesel was attempting to keep himself and his father alive, Italian chemist Primo Levi was also fighting to survive Auschwitz. Arrested for his involvement in Italian anti-fascist resistance, Levi was one of only 20 prisoners in his 650-person transport group to survive until the Red Army’s liberation of the camp in January 1945. These accounts of that time and the postwar travels that followed have been adapted into two films, and are widely considered two of the best works of twentieth century literature.


  1. ‘Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank


diary of anne frank cover

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Unlike Weisel and Levi, Frank never knew that her story would reach others; she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 at the age of 15. Before that, however, Frank spent more than two years with family and acquaintences hiding from the Nazis in her home city of Amsterdam. Salvaged from the Nazis by a family friend, the diary was one of the first victim accounts ever to receive a large audience, and to this day remains one of the most widely-read works of Holocaust literature. At turns witty, angsty, and hopeful, the diary is a touching and highly relatable account of one teenage girl’s attempt to fight through and against boredom, her loving-but-volatile family, and the lurking terror that threatens to consume them all.


  1. ‘Maus: A Survivor’s Tale’ by Art Spiegelman


Maus cover

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Cartoonist Art Spiegelman grew up in a comfortable middle class home in Queens, a product of a peaceful and prosperous postwar America. But he always harbored a not-quite-open secret: his Polish-Jewish parents had survived both the Nazi ghetto and Auschwitz, losing their first child and the majority of their family in the process. Spiegelman’s dedicates himself to the mission of recording his father Vladek’s story through unconventional graphic narrative, but the effort is complicated at every turn by the two men’s difficult relationship–a prickly thorn that eventually comes to illuminate the raw power of Vladek’s nightmarish ordeal.


  1. ‘I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz’ by Dr. Gisella Perl


I was a doctor in Auschwitz cover

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In 1944, Dr. Gisella Perl was achieving hard-won success as a gynecologist in Sighet, Hungary when the Nazis invaded and deported her and her fellow Jews to Auschwitz. There, Perl was tasked by “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele to attend to thousands of patients without antiseptics, clean wipes, or running water. At great personal risk, Dr. Perl covertly saved the lives of hundreds of women by aborting pregnancies that would have led to torture, execution, and medical experimentation.


  1. ‘An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin’ by Gad Beck


an underground life cover

Image courtesy of Publisher’s Weekly


Along with Jews, Roma, disabled people, ethnic, and political minorities, gay people were one of the unlucky groups targeted by the Nazis for torture and extermination. As both a gay and Jewish young man living in Berlin, Gerhard (later Gad) Beck had a unique perspective on the swastika-clad horror overtaking his world. Though his privileged status as the son of a Christian mother enabled him to avoid immediate deportation, Beck nonetheless risked his safety to aid others fleeing Nazis, all the while mourning the lover he could not save. Beck died in 2012, the last known gay survivor of the Holocaust.


  1. ‘Jacob the Liar’ by Jurek Becker


Jacob the Liar cover

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Jurek Becker was only a child when he and his family were forced into the Lodz Ghetto before their transportation to the Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. This novel, written by Becker 25 years later in his adopted home of East Berlin, tells a story of everyday life in the ghetto, as a young boy’s lie about a hidden radio quickly becomes life-threatening to himself and those around him.


Featured image courtesy of WBUR, The New York Times, and Revues.org.