The Librarian Of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites Ebury April 4th 2019
It wasn’t an extensive library. In fact, it consisted of eight books and some of them were in poor condition. But they were books. In this incredibly dark place, they were a reminder of less sombre times, when words rang out more loudly than machine guns…’
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 Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious books the prisoners have managed to smuggle past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the secret librarian of Auschwitz, responsible for the safekeeping of the small collection of titles, as well as the ‘living books’ – prisoners of Auschwitz who know certain books so well, they too can be ‘borrowed’ to educate the children in the camp.
But books are extremely dangerous. They make people think. And nowhere are they more dangerous than in Block 31 of Auschwitz, the children’s block, where the slightest transgression can result in execution, no matter how young the transgressor…
It is not for us to imagine ourselves in a concentration camp. We can never truly understand the terror, the starvation and the harsh cruelties of its many hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. What we can do is to witness, and read the thoughts and accounts of those incarcerated and that was exactly what Antonio Iturbe set out to do in The Librarian Of Auschwitz.
It was definitely not a comfortable read and was all the more real, based on the true story of its main character Dita. The fact that Dita lived to tell her story was testament to her bravery, her strong will and unerring need and will to survive.
You read with utter disbelief the lengths and indeed conscientiousness with which she protected the eight books in the camp library. The joy she found in their contents, the escapism to another world and the love and care she took in maintaining their condition was both astounding and poignant. They gave her and others a gateway, a chance to forget their circumstances and a certain power that the Nazis would have undoubtedly taken away and punished with certain death if discovered.
Dita was the one shining light of the novel. At only 14 many young girls would have withered and crumbled but not Dita. We watched and read as, before our eyes she matured, grew up, understood the vileness of human nature whilst finding a way to live with it, to find the positives that got her out of bed every morning.
A novel set in a concentration camp was never going to be all sweetness and light but amidst the darkness was a story that had laughter, singing, love and hope. I was amazed to read of the children’s camp, the school created to provide them with learning, with a reason to run around, play games and enjoy being just what they were, children. You couldn’t help but admire Fredi Hirsch and his fellow teachers even if Hirsch hid behind alterior motives, motives that you knew did not bode well, that lingered with dreadful anticipation.
The Nazi’s were pretty much as you would expect, harsh, unwielding, fed on propaganda and the promise of a pure German state. Did they know it was wrong? For some no, for the tiny minority yes, but their own sense of entrapment and need to survive prevailed.
Iturbe’s narrative skilfully captured the fear and the anguish of his characters but he excelled in his descriptions of the camp itself. You could not help but recoil in horror as ash from the mass cremations fell from the sky like rain on the prisoners, a daily occurrence that almost became the norm. The cold, the lack of food, the squalid conditions and the constant fear of the gas chambers eerily echoed from the pages. You wondered if life could be any worse until Iturbe turned his attentions to Bergen Belsen, his descriptions on an entirely different and higher level. Having visited myself I will never forget the eerie silence, the huge mounds that covered the many thousands who perished.
The images, the smells, the sheer scale of the torture endured was never faraway, but if there was one thing that Iturbe brilliantly conveyed it was the spirit, the tenacity and the small glimpses of joy and happiness of the prisoners, the one thing the Nazi’s could never take from them.
The Librarian Of Auschwitz was a novel that would linger long in the mind and a reminder to us all to feel grateful for the freedom and the peace we now live in.
I would like to thank Ebury for a copy of The Librarian Of Auschwitz to read and review and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the blogtour.
About the author
Antonio Iturbe lives in Spain, where he is both a novelist and a journalist. In researching The Librarian of Auschwitz, he interviewed Dita Kraus, the real-life librarian of Auschwitz. Lilit Zekulin Thwaites is an award-winning literary translator. After thirty years as an academic at La Trobe University in Australia, she retired from teaching and now focuses primarily on her ongoing translation and research projects. Dita Kraus was born in Prague. In 1942, when Dita was thirteen years old , she and her parents were deported to Ghetto Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz,. Neither of Dita’s parents survived. After the war Dita married the author Otto B. Kraus. They emigrated to Israel in 1949, where they both worked as teachers They had three children. Since Otto’s death in 2000 , Dita lives alone in Netanya. She has four grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Despite the horrors of the concentration camps, Dita has kept her positive approach to life.