Title: The Librarian of Auschwitz
Author: Antonio Iturbe (Translated by Lilit Thwaites
Published: October 10, 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
This is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.
Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Fredy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.
Out of one of the darkest chapters of human history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope.
This book caught my eye on a display table at Barnes & Noble in part because it reminded me of The Book Thief, which was one of my favorite reads of 2017. I knew immediately that I had to read it.
The Librarian of Auschwitz tells the true story of Edita (Dita) Kraus (née Poláchová), known in the book as Dita Adler.
Dita is just 9 years old when the Germans invade and occupy Czechoslovakia. She and her parents are forced to move out of their lovely apartment in Prague and into less desirable areas. When she is 12, Dita’s family is sent to the Jewish ghetto/concentration camp in Terezín (Theresienstadt in German), which is about an hour away from Prague.
In Terezín, she meets Fredy Hirsch, an athletic and charismatic young man who has been tasked with organizing activities for the youth in the Jewish ghetto.
I actually visited Terezín last June (pictures below). Prior to my visit, when I thought of concentration camps, I really only pictured extermination camps, such as Auschwitz II. The interesting thing about Terezín was that the Nazis essentially set it up as a model internment camp, using it as propaganda to show the Red Cross (and the world) how well they were treating the Jews.
They staged sham institutions like a school, bank and various shops. They had a library and a theatre, as well as various recreational sites like areas to play sports, a swimming pool, etc. They even shot a propaganda film, directed by Jewish prisoner Kurt Gerron, in September 1944. But after the film was completed, Gerron and most of the cast were transferred to Auschwitz. Gerron was executed by gas chamber on October 28, 1944.
In September 1943, Fredy is transferred to the BIIb sector of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which has been designated as the Terezín family camp.
BIIb is designed so that anyone from the Red Cross or another neutral country who wants to verify that the Jews being deported from Terezín are alive can visit Auschwitz and see that they are indeed alive. All prisoners in BIIb are marked for “special treatment” in six months.
Fredy becomes the director of Block 31, where he helps establish a clandestine school for the children of the family camp. They have several (hidden) books, and adults give lessons on various subjects to maintain some sense of normalcy for the children.
Dita’s family is transferred to BIIb in December 1943. When she runs into Fredy again, he remembers her for her work in the Terezín library, and he asks her to work as an assistant in Block 31.
The first thing that characterizes Dita is her boldness. She is constantly asking herself and her parents why these atrocities are happening. It’s not fair to her that her childhood ended at the age of 9.
Dita also spends a lot of time pondering other people’s actions and the choices they make.
Can you really choose, or do the blows dealt to you by fate change you no matter what, in the same way that the blow of an ax converts a living tree into firewood?
The most amazing thing about this book is how its bricks and mortar are made up of facts. This book is based on the experiences of REAL Holocaust survivors (and victims) like Ota and Dita Kraus, Rudy Vrba (formerly Rosenberg).
The only thing I would caution readers about is that it sometimes jumps around from one 3rd-person POV to another. The first few times it happened were a tad confusing, but once you get used to the writing style, it wasn’t a difficult read from a technicality standpoint.
The Librarian of Auschwitz is a story of hope and survival — all while overcoming unimaginable adversity. I laughed at Dita’s sense of humor and ability to keep her chin up. I cried when her friends and loved ones were taken away to die. It was such a compelling read. I really can’t recommend it enough.