Holocaust Memorial Day: The books to read, from ‘The Volunteer’ to ‘Night’

Eva Waite-Taylor
·5-min read
<p>Commemorated annually on 27 January, the day is dedicated to remembering those killed under Nazi persecution and in the more recent genocides</p> (iStock/The Independent)

Commemorated annually on 27 January, the day is dedicated to remembering those killed under Nazi persecution and in the more recent genocides

(iStock/The Independent)

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) – commemorated annually on 27 January – is dedicated to the remembrance of those who were killed in the Holocaust under Nazi persecution and takes place on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwtiz concentration camp.

In recent years the scope has widened to include all victims of genocides, notably Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and China. The latter being the ongoing plight of Uighur Muslims, which is frighteningly similar to the brutal treatment towards Jews during the Holocaust.

It was first honoured in 2001 and since 2005, the day has been supported by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a charity set up by the government of which Prince Charles is patron.

The day is usually commemorated with a national event that brings together survivors and their families, alongside members of the Royal Family.

Every year a different theme is assigned to HMD, decided by the trust, and this year it is “be the light in the darkness”. Acting as a call to action, it encourages people to reflect on the depths that humanity can sink to, but also understand the ways both individuals and communities resisted darkness to “be the light” before, during and after genocide. People are being encouraged to light a candle in their windows at 8pm to remember those who died.

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As these past acts of barbarity recede further into history, it will become increasingly more important to recognise the stories that remain, and it’s up to us to make sure these tales of suffering amid unparalleled devastation, live on.

In honour of the day, take up the mantel of education and remembrance by immersing yourself in these works of fiction and non-fiction, covering the Holocaust, as well as the genocides that followed.

You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel, published by Penguin Books Ltd

At just 15-years-old, Elie Wiesel was taken to Auschwitz and faced the struggles of preserving his identity in the brutal and grossly inhumane conditions. His memoir is based on his experiences as a prisoner and is a terrifying account of the death of his family, the death of his innocence, and his despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the absolute evil of man. A hard read, but a remarkable one at that.

Buy now £6.95, Amazon

‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ by Heather Morris, published by Zaffre

A heartfelt story of love in a period of sheer darkness. Inspired by Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 and forced to tattoo numbers onto the arms of thousands of incoming prisoners, this novel is equal measures remarkable and life-affirming. At times it is almost unbearably poignant, and Morris’ ability to approach such an emotive subject matter in her debut novel is testimony to her ability.

Buy now £7.49, Waterstones

‘Edith’s Story: The True Story of a Young Girl’s Courage and Survival During World War II’ by Edith Velmans published by Van Horton Books

When Hitler invaded Holland in 1939, Edith was sent to live with a protestant family, changed her name, and survived by posing as a gentile. Based on her teenage diary, wartime letters, and reflections of being an adult survivor – this memoir recounts wartime events with poignant detail. Full of love and extraordinary courage, it is a must-read.

Buy now £9.94, Bookshop

‘The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz’ by Jack Fairweather, published by Ebury Publishing

Awarded the Costa Book of the Year award in 2019, The Volunteer tells the story of Witold Pilecki, the Polish resistance agent who entered Auschwitz, by choice, feeding vital information back to the Allied forces. Through extensive research and a gripping writing style, former war reporter Jack Fairweather brings to light the life of a true hero and provides a new perspective on the horrors of the final solution to put a stop to the Nazi’s death camps.

Buy now £6.49, Waterstones

‘In the Shadow of the Banyan’ by Vaddey Ratner, published by Simon & Schuster

Featuring in the recommended reading list produced by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, this book is semi-fictional debut written by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Telling the story of seven-year-old Raami, as her world is shattered when the Khmer Rouge takes over during the Seventies. Amid a climate of systematic violence, starvation and forced labour, Raami clings to the only remaining memory from her childhood – her father’s mythical legends and poems – in order to survive.

Buy now £9.99, Blackwell’s

‘A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche

Set amid Rwanda’s genocide, A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali tells the moving and passionate love story of Canadian journalist and a local waitress working at the hotel he resides, Hotel des Mille-Collines. Beyond its walls exists a chaotic society in which millions live in poverty, surrounded by violence and disease. A hard-hitting, but worthwhile read that brings to the forefront the turmoil and terror of Rwanda’s genocide.

Buy now £8.15, Amazon

‘What is the What’ by Dave Eggers, published by Penguin Books Ltd

Dave Eggers tells the harrowing story of one of the world's most brutal civil wars in Dafur. In this fictionalised autobiography, we follow the life of a little boy, Valentino Achak Deng, and his journey to safety, along with thousands of others, after his village is attacked. Along the way, he encounters enemy soldiers, liberation rebels and deadly militias, and when he finally resettles in the United States, he finds a life of promise. But, also one of heartache and myriad of new challenges. Moving and suspenseful, What Is the What is an astonishing novel that illuminates the lives and experience of millions through one extraordinary man.

Buy now £10.99, Waterstones

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