Share 75 Years Later: 10 Unforgettable Novels About World War II We’re Reading to Honor the Past

75 Years Later: 10 Unforgettable Novels About World War II We’re Reading to Honor the Past

As we cross the seventy-fifth anniversary of World War II’s completion, we take a moment to recognize the extraordinary pain and horror that arose from that time, while also saluting the inspiring and daring heroes who led this world into greater peace and safety. A plethora of memorable historical fiction has emerged from this struggle, and rightly so. To commemorate the countless experiences that spanned the years of World War II, take some time to peruse these impactful pieces of historical fiction that have given a voice to that monumental period. 


The Whispers of War
by Julia Kelly

Nora is a socialite. Hazel is a matchmaker. And Marie is a German-born woman who moved to England at the age of twelveTHE WHISPERS OF WAR follows these three very close friends through life before and during the onset of World War II. When rumors of war first begin to spread across England, there is talk of Germans being sent to internment camps to weed out any spies. Marie is branded an enemy alien, and quickly realizes that her family is in danger. As the three friends’ journey unfolds, they find themselves fighting to preserve Marie’s life and freedom at all costs. 

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The Whispers of War
Julia Kelly

The start of World War II looms over three friends who struggle to remain loyal as one of them is threatened with internment by the British government, from the author of the “sweeping, stirring” (Kristin Harmel, internationally bestselling author of The Room on Rue Amélie) The Light Over London.

In August of 1939, as Britain watches the headlines in fear of another devastating war with Germany, three childhood friends must choose between friendship or country. Erstwhile socialite Nora is determined to find her place in the Home Office’s Air Raid Precautions Department, matchmaker Hazel tries to mask two closely guarded secrets with irrepressible optimism, and German expat Marie worries that she and her family might face imprisonment in an internment camp if war is declared. When Germany invades Poland and tensions on the home front rise, Marie is labeled an enemy alien, and the three friends find themselves fighting together to keep her free at any cost.

Featuring Julia Kelly’s signature “intricate, tender, and convincing” (Publishers Weekly) prose, The Whispers of War is a moving and unforgettable tale of the power of friendship and womanhood in the midst of conflict.

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Schindler's List
by Thomas Keneally

This stunning novel tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German war profiteer and factory director who came to save more Jews from the gas chambers than any other single person during World War II. Keneally based his book on the actual testimony of the Schindlerjüden—Schindler’s Jews—brilliantly portraying the courage and cunning of a man who chooses to do good in the midst of unspeakable evil. 

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Schindler's List
Thomas Keneally

A stunning novel based on the true story of how German war profiteer and factory director Oskar Schindler came to save more Jews from the gas chambers than any other single person during World War II. Keneally used the actual testimony of the Schindlerjuden—Schindler’s Jews—to brilliantly portray the courage and cunning of a man choosing to do good in the midst of unspeakable evil.

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House on Endless Waters
by Emuna Elon

HOUSE ON ENDLESS WATERS is part mystery, part historical fiction, and entirely captivating. Despite swearing off the city of his birth, Amsterdam, author Yoel Blum reluctantly returns at the behest of his agent to promote his latest book. While there, Yoel takes a tour of the Jewish Historical Museum with his wife. What started out as an innocent visit quickly changes Yoel’s entire perception of his identity: while in the museum, he stumbles upon film footage that portrays prewar Dutch Jewry and sees, to his shock, the youthful face of his beloved mother, posing with his father, his older sister, and an infant he doesn’t recognize. This discovery kicks off Yoel’s attempt to uncover the dark wartime history of the underground system that protected Jewish children from danger. 

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House on Endless Waters
Emuna Elon

“Elon powerfully evokes the obscurity of the past and its hold on the present as we stumble through revelation after revelation with Yoel. As we accompany him on his journey…we share in his loss, surprise, and grief, right up to the novel’s shocking conclusion.” —The New York Times Book Review

In the tradition of The Invisible Bridge and The Weight of Ink, “a vibrant, page-turning family mystery” (Jennifer Cody Epstein, author of Wunderland) about a writer who discovers the truth about his mother’s wartime years in Amsterdam, unearthing a shocking secret that becomes the subject of his magnum opus.

Renowned author Yoel Blum reluctantly agrees to visit his birthplace of Amsterdam to promote his books, despite promising his late mother that he would never return to that city. While touring the Jewish Historical Museum with his wife, Yoel stumbles upon footage portraying prewar Dutch Jewry and is astonished to see the youthful face of his beloved mother staring back at him, posing with his father, his older sister…and an infant he doesn’t recognize.

This unsettling discovery launches him into a fervent search for the truth, shining a light on Amsterdam’s dark wartime history—the underground networks that hid Jewish children away from danger and those who betrayed their own for the sake of survival. The deeper into the past Yoel digs up, the better he understands his mother’s silence, and the more urgent the question that has unconsciously haunted him for a lifetime—Who am I?—becomes.

Part family mystery, part wartime drama, House on Endless Waters is “a rewarding meditation on survival” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and a “deeply immersive achievement that brings to life stories that must never be forgotten” (USA TODAY).

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The World That We Knew
by Alice Hoffman

This wrenching tale of survival and a mother’s love begins in Berlin in 1941, as the war begins to encroach on Hanni’s daily lifeThe only way to protect her daughter, Lea, is to send her away, but she’s not going to let Lea escape without a protective companion. Hanni entrusts Ettie, the daughter of a renowned rabbi, to create a magical golem—disguised as a woman named Avato protect Lea at all costs. Lea, Ava, and Ettie escape, eventually parting ways in their search for freedom: Lea and Ava make their way through Paris, while Ettie trains to be a fighter. The girls are tested time and again throughout their journey, and readers will learn just how much a person will truly sacrifice in the name of motherly love. 

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The World That We Knew
Alice Hoffman

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL

On the brink of World War II, with the Nazis tightening their grip on Berlin, a mother’s act of courage and love offers her daughter a chance of survival.

“[A] hymn to the power of resistance, perseverance, and enduring love in dark times…gravely beautiful…Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

At the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. Her desperation leads her to Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi whose years spent eavesdropping on her father enables her to create a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Hanni’s daughter, Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never-ending.

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All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

This historical tale is a cherished story for good reason. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl whose father works in Paris’s Museum of Natural History. But when the Nazis invade, she and her father are forced to flee, bringing with them the museum’s most valuable jewel. Back in Germany, Werner Pfennig and his younger sister are left as orphans. As he grows, Werner becomes infatuated with a radio he finds, and soon learns how to fix and manipulate the hardware. He becomes a radio expert, and is enlisted to track down the resistance. ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE beautifully intertwines these two complex characters’ lives. 

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All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Book Review Top Ten Book, National Book Award finalist, more than two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

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The Light Over London
by Julia Kelly

Cara Hargraves is an antiques dealer, so treasures come naturally to her. But one day, as she cleans out an old estate, she happens upon a piece of history far more valuable than it seems at first glancean old tin containing an unfinished diary from World War II and a photo of a young woman in uniform. In Cara’s search for the author of this diary, she discovers that her family’s own wartime secrets may be hiding within this relic of time. In 1941, Louise Keene is desperate for a grander life, and so she joins the women’s auxiliary branch of the British Army as a Gunner Girl. The only thing keeping her grounded throughout her near-death, bomb-filled nights is the thought of being with Paul, the dashing RAF pilot she loves, once again. That is, until a bundle of her letters to him is returned to her unopened. Louise realizes that romance during wartime is far darker and more heartbreaking than she could have ever imagined. 

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The Light Over London
Julia Kelly

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The Winemaker's Wife
by Kristin Harmel

This moving story takes place in the French vineyards of Champagne in 1940 and in 2019 New York. Michel, the owner of champagne maker Maison Chauveau, lives with his new wife, Inès, in France. But when the Germans invade, their entire way of life is at stake. As the war escalates, Michel turns his back on his marriage to serve in the RésistanceWhile hiding munitions is a risky move on Michel’s part, Céline, the half-Jewish wife of Chauveau’s chef de cave is in even greater dangerrumors abound of Jews being shipped east to an unspeakable fate. When Inès makes a mistake with a Nazi collaborator, she puts the lives of those she loves, and the existence of the champagne house that ties them all together, at risk. Flash forward to 2019, when Liv Kent receives an unannounced visit from her grandmother, who insists that they take a trip to France. When past and present collide at last, Liv finds herself on a road to salvation that leads right to the caves of Maison Chauveau. 

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The Winemaker's Wife
Kristin Harmel

The author of the “engrossing” (People) international bestseller The Room on Rue Amélie returns with a moving story set amid the champagne vineyards of France during the darkest days of World War II, perfect for fans of Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

Champagne, 1940: Inès has just married Michel, the owner of storied champagne house Maison Chauveau, when the Germans invade. As the danger mounts, Michel turns his back on his marriage to begin hiding munitions for the Résistance. Inès fears they’ll be exposed, but for Céline, the French-Jewish wife of Chauveau’s chef de cave, the risk is even greater—rumors abound of Jews being shipped east to an unspeakable fate.

When Céline recklessly follows her heart in one desperate bid for happiness, and Inès makes a dangerous mistake with a Nazi collaborator, they risk the lives of those they love—and the vineyard that ties them together.

New York, 2019: Recently divorced, Liv Kent is at rock bottom when her feisty, eccentric French grandmother shows up unannounced, insisting on a trip to France. But the older woman has an ulterior motive—and a tragic, decades-old story to share. When past and present finally collide, Liv finds herself on a road to salvation that leads right to the caves of the Maison Chauveau.

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The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

Liesel's life in Nazi Germany in 1939 is completely altered when she happens upon—and steals—a book called The Gravediggers Handbook. This act begins her career of book stealing, taking books wherever they can be found—at Nazi book burnings, the mayors wifes libraryto feed her love for words. But when Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, her life is put in jeopardy. This award-winning book is a rich and captivating piece of historical fiction that should be on everyone’s bookshelf. 

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The Book Thief
Markus Zusak

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

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MENTIONED IN:

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Atonement
by Ian McEwan

Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister flirt with the family’s gardener, but interprets this act to be something far worse than it is. Briony’s adolescent understanding of the world and heightened emotional reaction to the scene spurs a chain of events that tears her family apart and alters the course of her entire life. The repercussions of Briony’s act echo through the chaos of World War II. This impactful novel juxtaposes guilt and forgiveness as it follows its complex characters into the action-filled British retreat from the Germans in the early 1940s. 

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Atonement
Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose. Benedict is the icky Paul Marshall. His scene with the candy bar is worth every penny.

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MENTIONED IN:

75 Years Later: 10 Unforgettable Novels About World War II We’re Reading to Honor the Past

By Holly Claytor | September 2, 2020

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By Taylor Noel | March 15, 2017

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By Caitlin Kleinschmidt | April 26, 2016

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By Off the Shelf Staff | November 23, 2015

Remembrance of Things Past: 12 Moving Novels of the Second World War

By Caitlin Kleinschmidt | May 7, 2015

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By Courtney Brach | February 13, 2015

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
by John Boyne

Prepare your heart to be broken as you follow the journey of two innocent young boys leading two starkly different lives. Bruno, a nine-year-old boy from a wealthy German family living in Berlin in 1942, at the beginning of the Holocaust, is forced to move with his family into a much smaller house far from Berlin when his father is appointed a commander of war. Isolated and homesick, Bruno discovers a nearby cluster of huts surrounded by a wire fence housing people dressed in striped outfitsAuschwitz. As Bruno explores the camp, he meets Schmuel, a boy around his own age, through the fence. As a heart-wrenching friendship develops over the course of a year, Bruno and Schmuel come to realize that they have much in common—but the fence separating their lives imposes devastating consequences. 

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
John Boyne

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