In no particular order, here are ten works that testify to the importance of finding words when there supposedly are none—which is to say, when there are no simple ones, yet many things that need to be said.
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
Only a few of the elements in The Periodic Table—one of the best creative nonfiction books of the twentieth century—relate to the Holocaust. Still, when I assigned it to my students in Japan and watched them struggle to situate the Lager, I realized that Levi’s descriptions of Auschwitz are perhaps most powerful when they are part of an evocation of the larger world in which we all live, love, and make meaning.
Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife
Sensuous and often joyful, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of the couple who hid Jews in the empty cages of their Warsaw zoo after the Nazis seized or shot the animals. Reading it makes you want to be a better caretaker of all the creatures around you.
Irme Kertesz, Fatelessness
Perfectly capturing the arbitrary nature of cruelty, this book, written by a Jewish survivor from Budapest, takes on special resonance following the Hungarian elections, and their embrace of xenophobia, this past weekend.
David Grossman, See Under: Love
The Israeli author imagines, among other things, an alternative life for the work of Bruno Schulz, the magical Polish writer who was murdered in the Holocaust. Grossman wanted to write a book that trembled on the shelf; he did. Difficult, like so many things worth loving.
Elie Wiesel, Night
The book’s final, chilling image is fitting, because reading it is like looking into a mirror and seeing, reflected back at you, a history you despise but have to own.
D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel
Its protagonist is murdered at Babi Yar after struggling to reclaim her life through psychoanalysis with Freud. Magnificent, with an opening fever dream that is one of the strangest and most spectacular sequences in modern literature.
W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
A testament to the power of traces, the persistence and dysfunction of memory, and the way our histories, though embodied, may refuse to be known. It haunts like the photograph of a beautiful stranger.
The Collected Poems of Nelly Sachs
Sachs is remarkable because she tried to reconcile Majdanek and Hiroshima in the space of one poem, and because her work collapses the space between inner demons and external horrors.
Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus
A student of mine said of Maus, “I loved the love story.” I realized she was right, because Maus contains several great ones. And I love the scene between the author and his psychiatrist: “On the other hand, he SAID it.” An essential work of art.
“Death Fugue,” Paul Celan
Okay, this one isn’t a book. Just go to YouTube and listen to Celan reading “Death Fugue” in German. His voice breaks down at the end, exhausted—the purest expression of the poem and of atrocity’s waste.