She is currently writing a middle-grade account of a reluctant German WWII soldier who disappeared on the Russian front. Her online travel series “Finding Reiner” won a 2015 bronze award from the North American Travel Journalists Association.
When I was a kid, I learned about World War Two from The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank. The book left me with compassion for Jews and a fear of all Germans. My understanding of the war wasn’t nuanced. There was only ally and enemy.
But then I married a German and learned of my husband’s uncle Reiner who was drafted at nineteen into Hitler’s army and disappeared in 1945. My husband’s family tried and failed to find Reiner for almost fifty years. Little did I know how many vanished as Reiner did.
In 2013, I discovered a box of Reiner’s military letters, stashed and forgotten in an attic. As I struggled to read the letters and learn the young soldier’s fate, I wanted to understand the war from the German side. I made a list of WWII books to read and chose both fiction and nonfiction to inform my heart as much as my head. These are some of my favorites:
Marcus Zusak’s, The Book Thief, tells the story of Liesel Meminger, who is forced into foster care when Hitler’s thugs take away her mother for supposed crimes against the country. Liesel’s life is changed through a love of reading and a friendship with a young Jew who hides in the basement of Liesel’s foster home. This brilliant book highlights the struggles ordinary Germans experienced in the climate of oppression.
Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s two books about the Hitler Youth spare no details about the organization’s policies of horror. The Boy Who Dared tells of Helmuth Hübner, a German schoolboy, who learns only slowly that his patriotism and duty are founded on propaganda and lies. Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadows documents the harsh reality of children who informed on their anti-Nazi parents, of those who were eager to fight for their country, and of children who realized the ugly truth too late and gave up their lives to expose it.
Barry Denenberg’s Shadow Life: A Portrait of Anne Frank and Her Family expands Anne Frank’s account through a fictional diary of her older sister Margot. This oral history, based on numerous primary sources, gives details of their lives that I always wanted to know as a child.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by acclaimed writer Erik Larson, was my guide to Berlin when I went to follow Reiner’s trail. I can no longer walk through the Tiergarten or past the Reichstag without remembering the lives lost there.
Helmuth James von Moltke’s Letters to Freya gave me hope for humanity. Von Moltke was a German aristocrat and devout Christian, drafted into the German intelligence, who worked secretly for the resistance. His letters had me holding my breath for pages.
My favorite WWII novel is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr interweaves the stories of two children, Marie-Laure in France and Werner in Germany, who are caught up in tragedy and redemption. Doerr’s stunning imagery and poetry awaken empathy for a continent in conflict.
Alternative readings: 8 Things You Should Know About WWII’s Eastern Front and National Archives WWII Records
What’s the best book you’ve read about WWII?