Initial Responses

Authors who first wrote about the Holocaust were almost always victims of National Socialist persecution. Their texts usually took the form of diaries or letters. When they were written, the authors very rarely intended them to be published. Often, they appeared in published form after the end of the Second World War and, in many cases, after the writer had been killed in a Nazi camp or ghetto.


Diaries offer us an insight into day-to-day life during the war, during occupation, while in hiding, during imprisonment in ghettos, and during imprisonment in concentration camps. Entries may stop suddenly. The break could mark the arrest, imprisonment, or even death of the writer.

Diaries can be adapted into other literary forms such as plays or novels. 

Extract from a journal kept by Klaus Peter Feigl, an Austrian/German Jewish refugee child living in France during the Second World War (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Peter Feigl)

Diaries reflect events as experienced by one individual. They are both a record of these events, and an attempt, through the act of writing, to come to terms with them as they happen. Because they are written in the present tense, there is no anticipation of events that we, readers today, know will happen later in time.

The Diary of Anne Frank

Anne Frank was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1929. With the coming to power of the Nazi Party, the Frank family fled to Amsterdam. In May 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands.

Anne Frank (copyright: Getty Images)

"It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart" (Anne Frank, 15 July 1944)

On 6 July 1942, the family went into hiding in a secret annex above the Opekta Works in Amsterdam. The were assisted by employees of the Opekta Works. On 4 August 1944, the hiding place was stormed by the Nazi authorities. The family was taken to Westerbork camp (Holland) and then Auschwitz. From there, Anne and her sister were sent to Bergen-Belsen. Here, they died of typhus shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945.

Anne kept a diary between 12 June 1942 and 1 August 1944. It was addressed to “Kitty”, whose identity has not been fully clarified. The diary charts Anne’s relationship with those around her, her reactions to isolation and to anti-Semitism.

Cover from the first edition of The Diary of Anne Frank (copyright: ANNE FRANK FONDS Basel, Switzerland)

The diary, first published in Dutch in 1947, was translated into several languages. In the 1950s, it was the most-sold paperback in West Germany. Today the diary is one of the most widely read examples of Holocaust literature and has been adapted several times into films.

Despite this prominence, it has provoked controversy. Before its publication, Anne’s father Otto removed parts of the diary in which Anne chronicled her sexual awakening, or criticised those around her – including Otto. An unabridged version was published in 1995.

Extract from The Diary of Anne Frank (copyright: Getty Images)

Victor Klemperer (1881-1960)

Victor Klemperer was born into a Jewish family. In 1912, he converted to Protestantism. He received a Distinguished Service Medal as a volunteer in the German army during the First World War.

“Truly, I have always felt myself to be a German” (Victor Klemperer, 30 March 1933)

“I am German and am waiting for the Germans to come back; they have gone into hiding somewhere” (Victor Klemperer, 30 May 1942)

His diaries chronicle his experiences in the Third Reich under a racial system which deemed him Jewish – a label he rejected.

He survived the war for two principal reasons: he was married to a non-Jew and his Gestapo records were destroyed during the Allied bombing of Dresden.

Between 1998 and 2003, English translations of his German-language diaries were published in three volumes: I Will shall Witness (1933 to 1941), To The Bitter End (1942 to 1945), and The Lesser Evil (1945 to 1959). They are valued for their insights into the experience of anti-Semitism during the Third Reich. They also shed light on the behaviour of German civilians and officials towards Jews.

Copyright: Penguin Random House


Poems use language and grammar creatively. Writers employ poetic techniques such as rhyme or alliteration to draw attention to certain ideas, words, or emotions. There is no fixed way to write a poem: length, rhyme scheme, rhythm, and use of imagery vary from poem to poem. Because of the stylistic use of language, some have questioned whether poetry is a suitable form for writing about the Holocaust.

Theodor Adorno

In 1955, the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared: “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”. For Adorno, the Holocaust was the product of the “Dialectic of the Enlightenment”. By this, he meant that there were certain traditions in Western society and culture which had been manipulated for destructive purposes. The arts were a part of these western traditions. To go on using the arts after Auschwitz would be, according to Adorno, to use contaminated systems of speaking and thinking. 

Theodor W. Adorno in Oxford, December 1935. (Photo: Mayer / Theodor W. Adorno Archiv, Frankfurt am Main, Fo 12)

Linked to this was Adorno’s criticism of the commercialisation of culture under capitalism. In Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1947), written together with Max Horkheimer, Adorno argued that the independence of art had been sacrificed to the interests of making money. The arts had been reduced to a “product” where all that mattered was their “market value”: their aesthetic or ethical quality was irrelevant as long as they “sold well”.

In 1966, Adorno revised his statement to acknowledge that “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you can no longer write poems.”

“First They Came”, Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)

Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor. He initially supported Hitler’s rise to power, but quickly became disillusioned with the Nazi Party’s ideology. In 1937, he was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and then Dachau. He was freed by the Allies in 1945.

Martin Niemöller (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Joseph Eaton)

His poem “First They Came” was first published in 1955 although it is believed to have been adapted from a 1946 speech. It highlights the dangers of not speaking out against injustice.

Engraving of Niemöller’s poem at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts.

“Death Fugue”, Paul Celan (1920-1970)

Paul Celan was born into a Jewish family in Romania. His parents died in an internment camp in Transnistria. Celan himself was imprisoned in different work camps during the war.

Paul Celan(Copyright: Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach)

Celan’s iconic poem “Death Fugue” directly confronts the annihilation of the Jews. Written towards the end of the war, it was first published in Romanian. The German version appeared in 1948. It only reached a wider public in 1952, as part of a poetry volume called Poppy and Memory. The line “Death is a master from Germany” is repeated four times and is the poem’s central idea. 

"Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany" (Paul Celan, "Death Fugue")

Postwar Literature

Between 1945 and the end of the 1960s, literary treatments of the Holocaust were dominated by the writings of survivors. The works of first-generation authors represent the difficulties they faced when trying to comprehend the enormity of what they had experienced.  Yet their works have more differences than similarities: every survivor’s experience was unique. These texts often cross literary boundaries: they are neither purely autobiographical nor are they entirely fictional.

Night, Elie Wiesel (1928-2016)

Night (1960 in English translation) depicts Elie Wiesel’s experience with his father in Auschwitz and Buchenwald between 1944 and 1945. The book details Wiesel’s growing anger and disgust with his life and with humanity.

Copyright: Penguin Random House

Critics are divided about how to categorise the book. Most agree it is not an eyewitness account. It is part autobiographical, part fictional. As a first-generation novel, it is often described as an autobiographical novel.

“Yet another last night. The last night at home, the last night in the ghetto, the last night in the train, and, now, the last night in Buna. How much longer were our lives to be dragged out from one ‘last night’ to another?” (Elie Wiesel, Night)

The writing of Night reflects the transnational character of the Holocaust and its aftermath: written in Yiddish, first published in Spanish-speaking Argentina, it recounts the experiences of a Romanian Jew and became known worldwide after its French translation. 

If This Is a Man, Primo Levi (1919 – 1987)

Primo Levi, an Italian Jew and a member of the Italian resistance who survived Auschwitz, wrote If This Is a Man in 1946. In it, he discusses his feeling of guilt at having survived when others perished, and the sense of shame.

In 1986, Levi published The Drowned and the Saved. Here, he examines what he calls the “grey zone”: in the case of those prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis, it is difficult to draw a categorical dividing line between victim and perpetrator.

Copyright: Penguin Random House

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951)

Born in Ukraine to Polish parents, Tadeusz Borowski was imprisoned as a political prisoner in Auschwitz and Dachau.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was first published in Polish in 1959. The main character, Tadek, describes how he and other prisoners assist the SS in the process of sending Jews to the gas chambers. Tadek is one of those in the “grey zone” described by Levi.

“There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice in silence, nor moral virtue that condones it” (This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen)

“I saw the death of a million people – literally, not metaphorically” (Tadeusz Borowski, 1946)

 Copyright: Penguin Random House                                                                    

Second Generation Literature

The children of Holocaust survivors struggled to understand their parents’ trauma, but at the same time were affected by it. Second-generation literature often reflects this sense of inherited trauma. Marianne Hirsch calls this “postmemory”. Second-generation authors push out the boundaries of literature by combining different literary forms or subverting genre expectations.

Maus, Art Spiegelman (1948- )

Art Spiegelman’s parents were Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz.  The family moved to the United States when Art was two years old.

Art Spiegelman, author of Maus

Maus (the German word for “mouse”) is a graphic novel depicting the Holocaust through drawings and text. It won the Pulitzer prize in 1992. Jews are represented as mice. The Germans are represented as cats. Key themes include the persecution of the mice, the violence exhibited by the cats and the difficulty experienced by Vladek (based on Art’s father) in telling his son about his past.

New Engagements

Since the 1980s, new ways of writing about the Holocaust have emerged. Authors with no personal connection to the Holocaust now write first-person narratives about life in concentration camps. There are books aimed specifically at children. There are also now novels about the Holocaust told from the perspective of the perpetrators, such as Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones (first published in French in 2006). This novel is narrated by an SS officer involved in carrying out the Holocaust.

The Reader, Bernhard Schlink (1944- )

Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany in 1944. He is not Jewish and has no personal connection to the Holocaust.

Bernhard Schlink (copyright: Roger Eberhard CC BY-SA 3.0)

His 1995 novel, The Reader, centres around two characters: Michael and Hanna. Michael is introduced as a fifteen-year-old boy who embarks on a sexual relationship with Hanna, a thirty-six-year-old woman to whom he reads classical literature. Michael subsequently encounters Hanna again as a university student – and discovers she is on trial for crimes committed during the Holocaust. 

"So I was still guilty. And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal" (Michael in The Reader)

One central theme is: can we still love someone after we discover that they have committed heinous crimes? But in the novel, Hanna’s illiteracy appeared to excuse her slide into criminality, while the main victim on whom The Reader focused is not a Jew, but a young German.

Copyright: Penguin Random House

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne (1971-)

In John Boyne’s 2006 novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Bruno is the nine-year-old son of an SS officer. He befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, who is a prisoner in the nearby concentration camp run by Bruno’s father. The book was criticised for its numerous historical inaccuracies. It implies, problematically, that perpetrators, or their family members, were also victims. But it has nonetheless become a bestseller and is frequently used in schools.

“What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pyjamas and which people wore the uniforms?” (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas)
John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (copyright: Barry O'Donovan. CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fabricating Memory

There has been relatively little controversy about who can write about the Holocaust. There is one exception: when authors pretend to have a personal link but in fact have none.

The Belgian writer Misha Defonseca claimed in Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years (1997) that she had survived the Holocaust as a young girl.

It subsequently transpired that she was neither Jewish nor incarcerated during the war. There are a number of similar examples. 


Is poetry simply too “beautiful” to be an appropriate medium for an engagement with the Holocaust?

Is it ethically problematic to present the Holocaust in a novel from the point of view of the perpetrators?

Does The Reader invite us to feel a degree of empathy with a perpetrator? If so, is this not also problematic?

To what degree can a novel alter the history of the Holocaust without becoming a travesty? Is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a travesty?

If there is a Holocaust novel you admire above all others, can you say why?

What can a novel do that a history book cannot?

Further Reading

Marianne Hirsch and Irene Kacandes, Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust (Modern Language Association of America, New York, 2004)

Erin McGlothlin, Second-Generation Holocaust Literature: Legacies of Survival and Perpetration (Camden House: Rochester, NY, 2006)

David Patterson, Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature (Oryx: Phoenix, 2002)

Alan Rosen, Literature of the Holocaust (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013)

David G. Roskies and Naomi Diamant, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide (Brandeis University Press: Waltham, MA, 2012)

R Clifton Spargo and Robert M. Ehrenreich, After Representation? The Holocaust, Literature, and Culture (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 2010)