Ranging from military histories of Stalingrad to a book of recipes from the Terezin concentration camp, the sheer amount of reading material on World War II is overwhelming. Here are the 10 most essential books focusing on various aspects of the war in Poland, organized by something like chronology: invasion, ghettos, Auschwitz, war's end.
1. No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939–1945, by Norman Davies
Davies, the author of the two-volume definitive history of Poland, God’s Playground, turns his attention here to the war's Eastern front, which he argues is underplayed by most histories of the war. Seeking to give the Soviets as well as the Nazis their fair share of blame, he argues that the common term "Hitler's war" for the invasion is misleading, letting Stalin—whose war crimes are perhaps still underestimated—off the hook. Davies's Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw is also indispensable.
2. Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment, edited by Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva, and Wojciech Materski
In the spring of 1940, Soviet Army troops shot nearly 15,000 Polish officers and other POWs in Katyn Forest and buried them in mass graves. After Hitler turned against Stalin, the Soviets "discovered" the graves and blamed the atrocity on the Nazis—a myth that continued to predominate in postwar communist Poland. This book, excerpted from longer editions in Russian and Polish, documents both the killings and the cover-up, and it examines the implications for Russian-Polish relations.
3. Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto, by Samuel D. Kassow
In 1940, historian and Warsaw Ghetto resident Emanuel Ringelblum established a clandestine group of scholars, writers, and other intellectuals, code-named Oyneg Shabes (Sabbath Joy), to record life in the ghetto. Before its liquidation, the group's members managed to bury thousands of documents in milk cans and tin boxes. Kassow's book offers copious excerpts from the archive and tells the fascinating story of one of the most incredible research projects of all time.
4. Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts From the Warsaw Ghetto, by Michal Grynberg, translated by Philip Boehm
The testimonials in this collection, mostly presented in excerpts, were preserved by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and published just a few years ago. Of the 29 writers included, nearly half did not survive the war. Their works range from diary-style chronicles ("At the moment I am living in an attic. I'm using a turned-over bucket as a table ...") to fictional and satiric accounts of ghetto life. One woman in hiding on the Aryan side of the city wrote up her experiences in newsletter form, including a news report on the shelter's epidemic of hemorrhoids, a meal planner for "lady readers," and a description of pest-control strategies ("Following fierce battles, we have held our position while inflicting great losses on the enemy").
5. The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939–1945, by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Yes, we all saw the movie, and who can forget that shot of Adrien Brody's lean figure against the backdrop of Warsaw's ruins? But the book it was based on, long suppressed in Poland, is notable for its lucidity and lack of sentimentality.
6. Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City, by Gordon J. Horwitz
The ghetto in Lodz, prewar Poland's second-largest city, was one of the first to be created and the last to be liquidated. It was also the home of Mordechai Rumkowski, the notorious "Elder of the Jews," often excoriated as a Nazi collaborator. There's no shortage of books on this subject (the classic Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941–1944collects a trove of firsthand material on ghetto life). But Horwitz's book is valuable for putting the city and its ghetto into an urban, German context—and for his measured reconsideration of the Rumkowski tragedy.
7. Collected Poems, by Czeslaw Milosz
In the famous poem "Campo dei Fiori," Milosz—the first Polish poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature—contrasts the carnival tune from a nearby carousel with gunshots audible from across the ghetto wall. "Someone will read as moral/that the people of Rome or Warsaw/haggle, laugh, make love/as they pass by martyrs' pyres," he wrote. "But that day I thought only/of the loneliness of the dying."
8. Auschwitz, by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt
How could an apparently ordinary town become evil embodied, the most notorious site of the 20th century? Dwork and Van Pelt begin their story in 1270, with the founding of the Polish town Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz by the Germans), and demonstrate the key role that it played for both countries over the next 700 years. The authors use photographs, blueprints, and testimonials from survivors as they consider the question of whether Auschwitz could have happened just anywhere.
9. This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski, translated by Barbara Vedder
These short stories, written by a young Polish poet who became a political prisoner at Auschwitz, stand beside the works of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi as definitive accounts of life in the camp. But unlike Wiesel and Levi, Borowski was a Gentile; the relatively privileged position he thus occupied gives his stories their peculiar moral chill.
10. Ashes and Diamonds, by Jerzy Andrzejewski
This novel by one of Poland's major postwar writers takes place in 1945, as the country was still reeling amid devastation. A young former soldier in the underground Home Army accepts a final assignment: to murder a local Communist Party official, himself a survivor of the camps. There are no heroes here, just two men caught in the trap of history. A great film by Andrzej Wajda was based on this book.