Nonfiction/Fiction Tour Through a Topic: Auschwitz, Mengele, and the Warsaw Zoo

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This week in Nonfiction November, the topic is nonfiction/fiction book pairings. I thought I’d put a little twist on this and do what I’m calling a “tour through a topic”–or what ends up here being several topics, all related to World War II and the Holocaust.

The topic this week is hosted by Sarah at Sarah’s Book Shelves; here is the prompt:

It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

What prompted my decision to “tour through a topic” was the connections between several books I’ve read this year–all fiction based on true stories–and the questions they prompted about the real stories, which led me to the nonfiction books. I have not read either of the nonfiction books yet, but when I’m ready again for some World War II reads, they are on my list.

The topics I’m focused on here are Auschwitz, Joseph Mengele, the Warsaw Zoo, and the occupation of Poland. Joseph Mengele was a horrific “doctor” who conducted medical experiments on 3,000 twins in Auschwitz–only 160 survived. The Warsaw Zoo was used to shelter and hide almost 300 Jewish people in the animal cages, after the Nazis slaughtered most of the animals while occupying Poland.

Among stories of unimaginable cruelty are also stories of compassion and bravery–three things that were hallmarks of World War II. The five books below are all connected by these things, and by some common threads in the stories. Read them in the order below to follow the thread.

Nonfiction and Fiction Books about Auschwitz, Mengele, and the Warsaw Zoo

 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Author: Heather Morris

While I actually did not love this book as a fiction read (its origins as a screenplay were obvious), the true story it’s based on was interesting. Lale Sokolov, a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was pressed into service as the tattooist who brands identification numbers on his fellow prisoners. Sokolov’s unique position in the camp provided him with access to both the prisoners and some of the inner workings of the concentration camp, providing a rare perspective.

During his time as the tattooist, Sokolov encountered Joseph Mengele, who sometimes hovered around the incoming prisoners looking for new additions to his experiments. Both Mengele’s behaviors and his brief conversations with Sokolov were chilling. While Mengele was not the focus of this book, these encounters provide a brief glimpse at the man and his actions, which are detailed in the next two books.

 

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Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz

Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz

Authors:Lucette Matalon Lagnado, Sheila Cohn Dekel

I have not yet read this nonfiction book, which provides a deeper look at both Mengele and his victims endured. The book alternates between a biographical account of Mengele’s life and interviews with 18 twins who survived his experiments.

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Mischling

Mischling

Author:Affinity Konar

Fictional twins Pearl and Stasha, chosen by Mengele for his “Zoo,” devise ways to endure their torture and maintain hope of survival and life outside the Zoo–until one of them disappears. After the camp is liberated, the search for life, normalcy, and each other is paramount. Mischling is not a book for everyone. As with any story about the Holocaust, the horrors endured by so many people are difficult to stomach.

While the book could have veered into “torture porn” territory (and fair warning: there are a few descriptions that are hard to take), readers are spared most of the details of the experiments. Instead, we are brought into the small moments, spaces, and relationships of the individuals ripped from their lives and fighting to maintain their own humanity while under the control of others who are determined to strip it from them.

Like The Tattooist of Auschwitz, this book is based on the true story of real twins–the Mozes twins–who endured the horrors described in the books.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

Author:Diane Ackerman

While this nonfiction book is not directly related to Mengele, I’ve included it here because of a connection to Mischling. Without giving too many spoilers for that book, at one point some of the characters reach the zoo in Warsaw–a very different “zoo” from Mengele’s. I had a vague recollection of hearing about this book (and movie), but reading about it briefly in Mischling piqued my interest in what actually happened there.

1939: the Germans have invaded Poland. The keepers of the Warsaw zoo, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, survive the bombardment of the city, only to see the occupiers ruthlessly kill many of their animals. The Nazis then carry off the prized specimens to Berlin for their program to create the “purest” breeds, much as they saw themselves as the purest human race. Opposed to all the Nazis represented, the Zabinskis risked their lives by hiding Jews in the now-empty animal cages, saving as many as three hundred people from extermination.

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We Were the Lucky Ones: A Novel

We Were the Lucky Ones: A Novel

Author:Georgia Hunter

While this book doesn’t deal specifically with the Warsaw Zoo or Mengele, I add it here as context for what was happening to Jews all around Poland. Another fictionalized account of true stories, this sweeping book examines the lives of one Jewish family–two parents and their five grown children and their spouses and young children–throughout the war in Poland.

The family members endure forced labor, starvation, relocation and imprisonment in ghettos, gulags, and prisons; raids; and constant threats of being beaten, killed, or sent to camps. Some spend years trying to find one another, uncertain whether their relatives are still alive.

This is one of the best World War II books I’ve read, providing both the historical context and the personal stories of life under occupation. I don’t know to what extent The Zookeeper’s Wife details the occupation of Poland, but if the focus is mainly on the zoo, this is an excellent companion read for understanding Jewish life in Poland at the time.

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Countless books have been written on World War II and the Holocaust; these are just a few that have been on my radar. What others would you recommend that are related?

Last Year for Nonfiction November

I went a different direction last year and recommended a trio of books for people who love Little House on the Prairie.

Nonfiction/fiction books topic tour: Auschwitz, Mengele, and the Warsaw Zoo.

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6 Comments

  1. Thrilled to see We Were the Lucky Ones on here! And the Twins book sounds fascinating…I’m super burned out of WWII, but that is one part of it I know nothing about.

  2. I’ve been wanting to read the Tattooist of Auschwitz. I’ve heard it’s good, but I’ve read quite a few Holocaust/WWII books in the last 6 months and think I need a little break. The first book that popped into my mind was Lilac Girls. Loved this book even though it was difficult to read. Other Holocaust books that fall into this category that I loved are Rena’s Promise, a true story about a woman who survived Auschwitz for 3 years (Mengele is mentioned quite a bit) and The Boy on the Wooden Box, which is the true story of the youngest worker on Schindler’s List. That last one is probably one of my all time favorite books!

  3. It’s interesting to see all the connections in the books we read. I’ve kind of moved away from reading WWII stories of late though.

  4. Three novels that came to mind were interesting to me because they are from a completely different perspective- that of the Germans. One is Chris Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast- my favorite of his books. Two is City of Women about life in Berlin after all the men have been drafted/killed. The last is The Undertaking and while it is very difficult reading it is powerful and compelling.

  5. I’ve been seeing The Tattooist of Auschwitz everywhere lately. I read a lot of books about WWII, so I will definitely be checking these out!

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