Friday, February 9, 2018

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a fictionalized account of the experiences of Dita Kraus (nee Polachova) who was sent to Auschwitz-Birchenau along with her mother and father in December, 1943.

Dita and her mother were housed in a section of Auschwitz known as Camp BIIb, referred to as the "family camp" which housed families brought in from the Terezin ghetto located in Czechoslovakia. The Nazis used the "family camp" as a propaganda showcase to prove to the outside world that Auschwitz was simply a work camp for the Jews of Poland.

The childrens block was overseen by Fredy Hirsch, a young Jewish sports instructor. He had managed to convince the Nazis to allow him to create a separate hut where the children could play while their parents slaved in the labour camp. The Nazis agreed but refused to allow schooling of the children. However, Hirsch helped create a clandestine school and library. Dita, age fourteen was asked by Hirsch to be the librarian. She  remembers only one book from the library, A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells. However, other people from the camp remembered other books too. The library also contained a "living library" in which people who knew certain books very well would tell the story to the children.

Dita Polachova and her mother were eventually sent to a work camp in Hamburg and then to Bergen-Belsen which was liberated by the British in April, 1945. Dita became ill with typhus and was quarantined. During this time her mother also became ill and died soon after. Dita's father, Hans had perished of starvation at Auschwitz so her mother's death left her an orphan. She returned to Prague and there met her future husband Otto Kraus who had been one of the instructors in the childrens block at Auschwitz. Dita moved to Teplice to stay with her friend, Margit and her father. During this time Otto wrote her every day and she eventually returned to Prague, married him and later emigrated to Israel where she lives today.

Author Antonio Iturbe was looking for information about the library in the childrens block at Auschwitz and surrepitously stumbled across Dita's contact information. This book is the result of both his interviews with Dita Kraus and the research he conducted. Although based on true events with real people, the novel is a work of fiction. Iturbe tells Dita's story using third person present tense narratives of various characters; Dita, Fredy Hirsch, Rudi Rosenberg who is the camp registrar,  Alice Munk who is Rudi's girlfriend, Viktor Pesek an SS guard from Romania and the Jewish girl he likes - Renee, and Ota Keller an instructor in the childrens' block.

Although the novel begins in January of 1944, the backstory of Dita's life is presented very early on as a series of flashbacks. Block 31 is undergoing an inspection by the SS guards, including Dr. Joseph Mengele. Dita is doing her best to go unnoticed as she has two books hidden beneath her smock. Books are forbidden and Dita must not be caught with them, something Dita very much understands. "Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think." To calm herself Dita thinks back on a time before fear overran everything. At age nine, in 1939, Dita's life was a happy one, living in Prague, Czechoslovakia, shopping with her mother and how as a child she had funny names for their neighbours. But all that changed with the arrival of the Nazis, on March 15, 1939.

At this time Dita's family lived in the most modern apartment building in Prague. She remembers her father dressed in neat suits for his job as a lawyer in the social security office. But for the Jews of Prague everything quickly spiraled out of control; immediately they are forced to move from their apartment across the river to one in Smichov. There are ration cards and bans, no school and no using the parks, theatres or shops. A year later saw yet another forced move to the Josefov district, where all the Jews were to now live. So Dita, her parents and her grandparents moved into an rundown apartment. Eventually they were forced to move with all the Jews out of Prague to a small walled town named Terezin which became a Jewish ghetto. It was from there they were deported to what would be the most famous extermination camp.

Dita and her parents arrived in Auschwitz in December 1943. An acquaintance from Terezin, told Dita's mother about the barrack-school. But at fourteen, Dita was too old for the school. However, the director of the school was able to keep a few older teens as assistants. At first the deputy director, Miriam Edelstein would not take Dita but when she learned Dita spoke fluent Czech and German, she had Dita act as a prompter for the play to be performed for the top officers of Auschwitz |II. After the play, Fredy Hirsch, the director of Block 31 offered Dita the job of librarian, a dangerous one because books are banned. Dita accepts. In Hirsch's cubicle, Dita is shown the eight books that comprise the library; an unbound atlas, a Basic Treatise on Geometry, A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells, A Russian Grammar, New Paths to Pyschoanalytic Therapy by Freud, a French novel (which turns out to be The Count of Monte Cristo), and a second Russian novel lacking a cover. While Dita lives in the childrens block, her parents live in separate men's and women's barracks.

Shortly after the barrack inspection, Dita is cornered by Dr. Mengele who tells her he's watching her. Terrified Dita wants to give up her librarian duties but she is concerned Fredy would be disappointed with her. Dita idolizes Fredy whom she remembers seeing at the Hagibor sports field on the outskirts of Prague. He was in charge of the youth activities there. Thinking back on Fredy, Dita decides "She won't quit the library...but she'll have to be alert..." Dita has a seamstress sew two hidden pockets on the inside of her smock so she can hide the books. As the children and teachers use the books more frequently, Dita asks Seppl Lichtenstern, a deputy director, to be given an assistant and for the books to be openly displayed each day on the chimney. Although Lichtenstern is opposed to this, Fredy agrees.

 Dita spends her time taking the books to those who want them and simply trying to survive without attracting the further attention of Dr. Mengele. But although Dita admires Fredy she also is puzzled by him, especially when she overhears his distress at deceiving the Jews in the childrens camp.  Dita wants to tell Fredy about Mengele but to avoid the others in the hut knowing about what happened she hides in a small space behind the woodpile to wait for him to be alone. She falls asleep and when she awakes it is nighttime and she overhears Fredy talking to an SS officer. Fredy is concerned about how he is deceiving the Jewish prisoners. This leaves Dita both confused and angry. As Dita struggles to survive in Auschwitz, she endures the death of her beloved father, watches the "liqudation" of the transport that arrived before hers and the death of the man she greatly admires - Fredy Hirsch. In her quest to discover the truth about Fredy's death, Dita uncovers the real reason behind the childrens block while mustering the courage to go on.


Prisoners uniforms on display in Auschwitz.
The Librarian of Auschwitz is a haunting story of life in the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau run by the Nazis in Poland. It tells the remarkable story of Dita Polachova as she struggles to survive through 1944. As the author states in his Postscript at the back of the novel,  "The bricks used to construct this story are facts, and they are held together in these pages with a mortar of fiction." 

To that end Iturbe weaves together the perspectives of many people with that of Dita's,  capturing the horror, degradation and fear experienced while being a prisoner in the what was perhaps the most efficient of the Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The Librarian of Auschwitz is not for the faint of heart; there are numerous descriptions of the indignities suffered by the Jewish people at the hands of the SS guards, descriptions of what Jewish women and children experienced when they were gassed, the hideous black skies around Auschwitz filled with the ash of the cremated bodies, information on Dr. Joseph Mengele's gruesome experiments on children and women and many, many more terrible things.

One theme that appears throughout the novel is the role of books and libraries as a form of resistance and provide a sense of normalcy and escape. Dita's early childhood was one surrounded by books. As they leave most of their possessions behind in the move to the walled city of Terezin - transformed to become the Jewish ghetto, Dita's father smuggles in a book, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. This annoys her mother who feels they could have packed more shoes instead. But Dita states, "...That book took me much further than any pair of shoes." For Dita, "The reality in the book became truer and, in a way, more understandable than the one that surrounded her in the walled city." In the Jewish ghetto, Dita learns of a secret library consisting of approximately sixty thousand books, "...from the hundreds of public libraries and private collections belonging to the Jewish community, which the Nazis had closed down and plundered." Dita helps the librarian, Miss Sittigova take a book trolley around the streets of Terezin. The books, although sometimes stolen and used for other purposes offered the Jewish prisoners an opportunity to escape briefly their terrible circumstances. the book trolley is the highlight of the Jewish people's day.

In Auschwitz, neither school nor books are allowed but the Jews under the direction of Fredy Hirsch find a way to circumvent this rule. They establish a clandestine school and a hidden library. Dita views the library and her role as librarian as a form of resistance. "She's a fourteen-year-old girl, and they are the most powerful military weapon of destruction in history, but she's not going to take part silently in the procession again. Not this time. She's going to stand up to them." Even in the face of a threat by Mengele, Dita forges on. Fredy encourages Dita to remain as libarian, "...Of course it's a risk, but we're at war --although there are people here who sometimes forget that. We're soldiers, Edita. Don't believe those who say we're bringing up the rear and then put down their arms. It's war, and each of us has our own front line. This one is ours, and we must fight to the end."

Being the librarian allows Dita to resist in her own small way - something that is very important to her. The Nazis had a penchant for book burning; Ota Keller tells Dita that Freud's "...books were among the first to be burned by Hitler in 1933." Dita also has a copy of The Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek which was also banned and burned by the Nazis. The book helps Dita cope and even makes her smile - something she at first feels shame for but then realizes that it too is a way of resistance. "In a place like Auschwitz, where everything is designed to make you cry, a smile is an act of defiance." 

When the childrens block is to be "vacated" Dita reviews the library books as though they are old friends, mending "their wounds", caressing them. "When they're lined up, the books form a tiny row, a modest display of veterans. But over these past months, they've enabled hundreds of children to walk through the geography of the world, get close to history, and learn math. And also to be drawn into the intricacies of fiction and amplify their lives many times over. Not bad for a handful of old books." It is like leaving behind old friends.

Even at the end of the war, while in the field hospital where her mother Liesel lays dying of typhus, Dita  finds solace in books. She is given two paperback novels by Francis, a British nurse who is carrying for her mother. "While her mother sleeps, she sits down on an empty bed and inhales the smell of paper, fans the pages quickly with her thumb, and smiles at the way it sounds like a deck of cards being shuffled. She opens a page, and the paper rustles. She opens a page, and the paper rustles. She runs her hand up and down the spine again and notices the blobs of glue on the covers. She likes the names of the authors -- English names that sound exotic to her. As she holds the books in her hands, her life begins to fall into place again. Doing this helps her slowly put the pieces of the puzzle back where they belong."

Iturbe incorporates many detailed historical facts into his story, sometimes through the flashbacks of the characters and other times when they fit directly into the storyline. For example while Fredy Hirsch is reminiscing as to how he ended up at Auschwitz this leads him to remember the arrival of 1,260 Jewish children from the Bialystok ghetto in Poland on August, 24, 1943. When the September transport is sent to "quarantine" and eventual extermination, Iturbe notes with precision the historical fact: "During the night of March 8, 1944, 3,792 prisoners from the family camp BIIb were gassed and then incinerated in Crematorium III of Auschwitz-Birkenau."

But The Librarian of Auschwitz is also a portrait of courage and hope, of determination and resistance, of random acts of kindness in a place where hate reigns. Dita never gives up, even at the very last when she goes through one final "selection" by Dr. Mengele, even when her mother dies after gaining her freedom. The death of Dita's mother was the most heart-wrenching moment in the entire novel because it highlights the unfairness that is the hallmark of life. Dita wonders how her mother suffered so much only to die when finally free. "Liesl Adler, who has resisted all the deprivations, tragedies, and miseries of these years, becomes gravelly ill with the arrival of peace. Dita can't believe that after all she has overcome, she isn't going to live in peace. It's not fair."

The canon of Holocaust literature is extensive, but The Librarian of Auschwitz seems to explore the experiences of the Jewish people in a more genuine way. Perhaps this is due to Iturbe's fortuitious meeting with Dita Kraus. In his Postscript, Iturbe writes, "There's a great deal about Auschwitz on the internet, but it only talks about the place."so he decided to visit the extermination camp "to feel the vibration of that accursed place." He writes,"Walking through Auschwitz-Birkenau in solitude means enduring a very cold wind that carries echoes of the voices of those who remained there forever and became part of the mud present-day visitors walk on." The visit gave Iturbe "some sense of what the Holocaust was" but it was his meeting with Dita that provided some depth of understanding about the Holocaust that the author has managed to infuse throughout the novel. Readers will wonder at the profound suffering of the Jewish men, women and children, the incredible indifference of the German people and the fanatical ideology that drove the Nazis to murder millions.

Further information on the following can be found at these links:

Kurt Gerron, a German singer, actor and director and also a Jew who was murdered by the Nazis after being forced to make a propaganda film for them.

Dita Kraus survived three concentration camps; Terezin north of Prague, Auschwitz-Birchenau and Bergen-Belsen.

Picture credit: Auschwitz uniform:

Book Details:

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
New York: Henry Holt and Company    2017

No comments: