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VE Day Books: Editors’ Picks

recommended by Sophie Roell

For the 75th anniversary of VE or Victory in Europe Day, Five Books editor Sophie Roell takes a personal tour of books about World War II and the Holocaust.

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Just thinking about Victory in Europe or VE Day on May 8th brings tears to my eyes. I say that so that before you commit to reading further you know in advance that this is not going to be an objective roundup of VE Day books or about World War II (for that, go to our collection of World War II interviews). This list is about what World War II means to me.

My parents were both Dutch. My father, who was 12 when Germany invaded the Netherlands, lived with his mother, three brothers and two sisters in a pretty Dutch town called Arnhem. One night, a British plane crash landed in the field in front of their house. One parachutist managed to get out, only to be shot by the Germans on his descent. My father’s older brother spent years trying to find out who that parachutist was and let his family know what had happened to him. My father’s oldest brother, meanwhile, went into hiding to avoid being conscripted by the Germans. Despite the frightening things that happened, for teenage boys it was a time of adventure. Last year Pushkin Children’s published Winter in Wartime, a Dutch children’s book, into English. It’s fiction, but gives a flavour for what it was like to be a teenage boy in occupied Holland, based on the author Jan Terlouw’s own childhood. It’s a lovely book and the hero, Michiel, looks after a British pilot.

By the time Arnhem became a focus for the battle to liberate Europe in 1944, my father and his family had been evacuated. But World War II would forever remain a huge event in his life, the subject of endless dinner table debates and discussions. In 2012, a couple of years before my father died—and when he was in a wheelchair because of the cancer that had spread to his bones—we went back to Arnhem together. We stayed at a guesthouse near his old house and explored some of the places he’d known as a boy. We visited the Airborne Museum. The most well-known book about the Battle of Arnhem is Irish war correspondent Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far. The movie of the book, directed by Richard Attenborough and with Sean Connery, Robert Redford and a star-studded cast, is unmissable. My father’s only criticism of the book was the title: it was not ‘a bridge too far’, but ‘a bridge not far enough’, because the Allies failed to get over the Rhine (my Dad always had extremely low tolerance for poetic license). I have not read bestselling British historian Antony Beevor’s more recent book, Arnhem, but expect it might be a better place to start for a contemporary reader—bringing in the German perspective and new source material. (Antony Beevor’s interview about World War II is one of the most popular on Five Books, so I presume quite a few people reading this are fans).

As my Dad and I were leaving the hotel near Arnhem where we were staying, I saw a copy of an old postcard pinned to the wall. It was from a girl called Anne Frank, who had spent a summer there, less than a kilometre from where my father had lived. Many people have read her diary. If you haven’t, it’s not too late. I gather from the introduction by Mirjam Pressler that there are three main versions: the one she kept for herself, the one she kept for public consumption and edited at age 15 (after she heard from the Dutch government in exile that after the war they might collect eyewitness accounts) and the version her father Otto put together, which excluded the sex bits and rude comments about her mother. She’s just so lovely and writes about everything that happened so clearly. She was born in Frankfurt in 1929, but moved to Holland with her family when she was five, because things had already gotten so bad for Jews in Germany. Later on, as Holland too became unsafe for Jews, her father Otto tried to move the family to America, but was unable to get a visa. They survived two whole years in hiding but were discovered nine months before the end of the war. It’s just so sad.

Anne’s story ended tragically, but as an aside I should mention that when I was living in New York, I met a Dutch woman called Johanna Reiss. I was lucky enough to have her as my Dutch teacher, and she lived only a couple of blocks from me in the East Village. She was Jewish and had survived the war with one of her sisters by hiding with a farmer in the eastern Netherlands. Her book about that, The Upstairs Room, written for children, won a Newbery Honor. I like to think of it as Anne Frank but with a less sad ending. She also has another book, The Journey Back, about reintegrating after the war, and how weird and uncomfortable it was.

It was from my father that I inherited my interest in the history of World War II, and history in general. For an overview of key events, there is nothing that I can recommend more highly than the BBC History of World War II DVD box set. What makes it so brilliant is the combination of contemporary footage, excellent re-enactments (the Germans on D-Day responding slowly because Hitler, a notorious late riser, was still asleep and no one dared to wake him up, sticks in my mind), as well as—and this was the most amazing bit for me—interviews with survivors of all nationalities: British, German, Russian, French etc. The segments on the war in the Atlantic, D-Day and Hitler versus Stalin are particularly good.

I watched the entire boxset when I was breastfeeding (as I warned previously, this is a personal list), an activity I found incredibly painful and difficult at first. I needed to treat myself whenever I had to feed the baby—which was quite frequently in the first six weeks—but it was impossible to read a book because I needed both hands free. The BBC boxset was the solution. I watched it at all hours of the day or night, but I had a strict rule: I was only allowed to watch it while I was actually breastfeeding. The moment I stopped I had to press pause. I remember an Italian friend stopping by to congratulate me one day, and asking with surprise why there was a picture of Hitler frozen on my TV screen.

When it comes to books on World War II, one of my father’s favourites was Barbarossa, by Alan Clarke, about Hitler’s Russia campaign. Heinz Guderian, the merits of Panzer tanks, whether it was the Russians or the Brits and Americans that won the war—it was hard to survive dinner at our house if you hadn’t read Barbarossa. As a book it is more military strategy-focused than I find fully satisfying, but it does focus on that Russia-Germany conflict which was so key to the outcome of the war. What happened on the eastern front was horrific and it comes up in many Five Books recommendations, books like Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder or in the most recommended book in our history section, the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. As a journalist with the Red Army, Grossman witnessed many of the horrors first-hand. There’s also, of course, Stalingrad by (again) Antony Beevor.

Other books I’m curious about that have been recommended (by military historian Sir Hew Strachan) on Five Books include a novel by a British soldier who was at Anzio—another Allied operation which did not go as planned—called Vessel of Sadness by William Woodruff. Italy is where I grew up (partly), near a town called Frascati just south of Rome where, during the war, the German general Kesselring was based for a while. Near our house there were a number of bomb craters made by the Allies trying to get him. Finding them in the woods beyond our garden added to the feeling, growing up, that World War II was still very much with us. The other book I’d like to read, but haven’t yet, is Antony Beevor’s account of World War II overall, as I’ve never read a book encompassing the entire conflict.

Now I get to the harder part of World War II for me, which was my mother’s family. My mother was born in Istanbul in 1926 to a Dutch father and an Austrian mother. She attended the German school in Istanbul. The family spent the summers in Austria, where she would see all her cousins. My grandmother’s family were originally from Prague. They were Jewish, but had started converting to Catholicism. Some, including my grandmother, had married non-Jews. It was a banking family that had done well in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and continued to have a comfortable, apparently idyllic life, with one branch of the family owning Schloss Thalheim.

There’s a picture I have of all of the cousins in a row, from the smallest to the oldest, a row of cute, smiling children taken, I guess, in the early 1930s. But after World War II broke out, they ended up fighting on opposite sides. One cousin was conscripted into the German army and was killed at the siege of Leningrad (on which battle, this book is highly recommended on Five Books and my husband absolutely loved this one, for young adults, as well). My mum’s favourite cousin, Guy Schubert, fled to England and died, aged 20, flying a bomber for the RAF over the Netherlands. (My daughter and I are currently listening to this memoir by an RAF pilot in World War II, also much recommended on this site). One cousin, Hubert, went into hiding in the part of France that had not been occupied. Meanwhile my mother’s great aunt, Hélène, who lived in Paris and had never married, was taken to a camp at Drancy and died en route to Auschwitz. She had been registered in Paris as Czech Jewish.

There are quite a few books about the Holocaust that have been recommended multiple times on Five Books: I’ve read Night by Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a reflection on what being a human is about, based on Frankl’s experience in the death camps. Most frequently recommended is Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, though I have to confess that I’ve avoided reading it. Instead I read his book The Periodic Table, about his life as a chemist before the war, which is a beautiful, beautiful book. (I also recommend In the Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorigo Bassano, a novel about a Jewish family that’s also set during that twilight period in Italy before Jews were deported).

If I have a preferred book to read about the Holocaust, it’s probably the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman, about his parents’ experience in Poland. Many have read it, but if you haven’t, you must. It’s set in late 1970s New York, and is as much about the son’s relationship with the father who went through all this, as it is about the events of the 1930s and 40s in Poland. I suppose in some ways it parallels my own relationship with World War II, via my father (my mother died when I was 9).

The other book I always recommend (and even gave my husband for Christmas one year) is Ordinary Men by historian Christopher Browning. I’ve written about it on the book page linked there, so click for more information, but it looks at the question of how a group of middle-aged men, most not even Nazis, ended up perpetrating some of the worst crimes of the Holocaust. At the end of the day, that seems to me the fundamental question of World War II, how human beings could do such things to one another, and how to keep an eye on the present so that it never happens again.

Where was my mother during all this? She should have been safe in Turkey which, after the disasters of World War I, had successfully managed to stay neutral in World War II. Unfortunately, some time after Hitler came to power, her father had taken strongly against some of the things being taught at the German school in Istanbul. It started with a geography book that depicted Holland as part of Germany. When students started having to Sieg Heil, it was the last straw. In 1939, a year before the Netherlands was occupied, my mother and brother arrived in Haarlem in northern Holland to continue their schooling, boarding with a family.

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As Rotterdam was bombed and the Netherlands surrendered to Hitler, my grandmother, back in Turkey, was devastated. The Netherlands had been neutral in World War I, but this time around, it would not be spared. According to the family story (and as with many family stories, perhaps not entirely true), my grandmother, who had a reputation for turning men’s heads, had known a German staff officer stationed in Istanbul just after World War I called Joachim von Ribbentrop. She now asked his help to get her children out of Holland and back to safety in Turkey. He was happy to help, but my grandfather was opposed. Some German soldiers went around to check on my mother, but she stayed in Holland and would not see her parents again till after the war.

It was now the winter of 1944, and because of the outcome of the Battle of Arnhem, northern Holland remained occupied by the Germans. That was Holland’s ‘hunger winter’, when many people starved to death and ate tulip bulbs to survive. By then, Anne Frank was in a concentration camp. On May 22nd, 1944, she had pondered whether or not Holland would be rescued. “What obligations do the British have towards us? What have the Dutch done to deserve the generous help they so clearly expect?” It was too late for poor Anne, but in the end the Allies did come to the rescue of the Netherlands. On May 5th, 1945, Holland was finally liberated, almost five years to the week after the country had surrendered. That summer, my mother saw her parents again, for the first time in six years. My father took a bicycle and went cycling around France. They would meet five years later, when both were at university.

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Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books. Previously she worked as a journalist in London, Beijing, Shanghai and New York. As a financial reporter, she covered the early years of the Chinese stock markets and the transition of its economy after Deng Xiaoping's 1992 tour of the south. She reported on the North Korean economy in 2001.

She studied modern history as an undergraduate at Oxford and, after travelling the world as a reporter for five years, took the Master's in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard University.  This wonderfully flexible program insists on at least one East Asian language and some courses on East Asia, but leaves plenty of room to roam about the university taking courses on random subjects. Five Books, set up in 2009, is her attempt to be a grad student forever (without the stress of having to write a PhD).

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Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books. Previously she worked as a journalist in London, Beijing, Shanghai and New York. As a financial reporter, she covered the early years of the Chinese stock markets and the transition of its economy after Deng Xiaoping's 1992 tour of the south. She reported on the North Korean economy in 2001.

She studied modern history as an undergraduate at Oxford and, after travelling the world as a reporter for five years, took the Master's in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard University.  This wonderfully flexible program insists on at least one East Asian language and some courses on East Asia, but leaves plenty of room to roam about the university taking courses on random subjects. Five Books, set up in 2009, is her attempt to be a grad student forever (without the stress of having to write a PhD).