The Librarian of Auschwitz is a young adult fiction novel based on the true story of Dita Kraus, who was only 13 years of age when she and her parents were sent to the Terezin ghetto, and then to the only "family camp" of the Auschwitz-Birknenau extermination camp in Poland during the Nazi invasion. In this story, young Dita is asked by Fredy Hirsch, the charming and inspirational head of the children’s block in Auschwitz -Birkenau, if she will take on the brave responsibility of overseeing the distribution and safe harboring of eight precious books. This task, if found out, would be punishable by death but our brave female protagonist opts to take on the role despite that. The books range from A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells to a Russian grammar book, and Dita’s act provides hope, knowledge, psychological escape, and even a slight sense of victory and rebellion against the Nazis for her and her fellow prisoners.
Witness vs. Writer
In Mrs. Kraus’ foreword for The Librarian of Auschwitz she states, "It is a story born both from my own experiences and the rich imagination of the author." Given the notion that her truth may be slightly compromised by the thoughts and ideas of the author, Antonio Iturbe, based on his own research, I could not help but search for online videos of Dita Kraus telling her story in her own words. In doing so, I found her reiterating portions of the book that one may have assumed were fictional, simply based on the cruel nature of the matter; yet, astonishingly, they really occurred. On the other hand, I found a video clip where Mrs. Kraus states how, as a young teen in Auschwitz, she did not quite understand the dangers behind overseeing the "library" at the time; I found this to be quite a shock given, in the book, how much emphasis was placed on the awareness of her action and its repercussions.
The Writer's Style
The first page of The Librarian of Auschwitz jumps right into the macabre function of Auschwitz as a death camp, and the author makes it quite clear the rest of the story will likely spare no details when describing the horrors witnessed and experienced by the camp’s occupants. In contrast to the darkness, we are provided just enough light and optimism to continue reading, by means of an introduction to equally memorable characters of Dita’s world, whom one cannot help but admire and become fond of. Seeing some of our favorite characters maintain their mental strength and integrity despite their suffering can put us to shame for complaining about miniscule, everyday matters. The love and loss we see between parents and their children, siblings, and lovers, is a humbling reminder of just how fortunate many of us are.
The description of the smells of Auschwitz, the temperature, the sounds of prisoners, songs sung by the children of Block 31, and tunes whistled by the horrific Dr. Mengele as he makes his presence known, only adds to the dramatic effect and film-like quality of the book. Certain images are hard to shake, especially those of women with small children heading toward the gas chamber, which I still cannot seem to forget.
For the most difficult moments, I found myself in denial, thinking, "Well, it is a teen fiction book… perhaps this part was made up and written to shake us to our core, like the harsh images of George Orwell’s 1984." However, given previous knowlege of the Holocaust atrocities, I knew better.
To me, that was the bothersome part; the reality of this mass genocide was far worse because it was indeed real and, it goes without saying, that not even words can do justice to describe the devastations of the Holocaust. Then again, from a writer’s standpoint, what better way for a book to help change the lives and perspectives of people around the world, than to tap into the empathetic side of its readers and make them question the past, present, and future state of humanity?
Aside from the difficult content, Iturbe's words flow nicely. Reading through the book's 423 pages is fairly easy. I am in no way a fast reader but I found myself procrastinating my progress with the book because I knew I would miss Dita and the other characters, especially her mother, Liesl. Their kind nature, strength, and positivity are indeed compelling.
As readers and librarians, we often forget there are times in history, and places in the modern-day world, where reading and distributing books is an act of defiance against those who wish to use ignorance as a weapon of oppression. This is a reminder of how powerful knowledge and the library as an institution can be.
Mrs. Kraus performed a wondrous act in not only being the Librarian of Auschwitz, but also reliving her tragic experience in an effort to educate people on the Holocaust from a very personal perspective. Antonio Iturbe did a wonderful job capturing the accounts of Mrs. Kraus, whom he serendipitously came across when trying to purchase a book written by her late husband, Ota Kraus (also an Auschwitz survivor). This resulted in the two meeting and forming an acquaintance that eventually led to the development of this book.
I am grateful that, in telling Dita's story, Iturbe also made it a point to tell the story of other heroes, victims, and survivors, thus sparking a flame of curiosity concerning their own individual accounts of life during the Holocaust. Lilit Thwaites seems to have done an incredible job in translatingIturbe’s novel from Spanish to English because, given how great a book The Librarian of Auschwitz has proven to be, I cannot imagine any important content got lost in translation.
Overall, I highly recommend The Librarian of Auschwitz.
Books mentioned in The Librarian of Auschwitz that can be found in the NYPL catalog (*available on-site only):
Books hidden by Dita
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
*The Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek
*A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells
Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-1945 by Peter Demetz
Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp by Yisrael Gutman & Michael Berenbaum
*The Painted Wall by Ota Kraus (husband of Dita Kraus)
*We Are Children Just the Same: The Secret Magazine by the Boys of Terezin by Marie Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc, and Zdenek Ornest
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
You may also be interested in:
The New York Public Library: Digital Collection—The Holocaust (photo archive)
The New York Public Library: Digital Exhibition—Letters to Sala: A Young Woman's Life in Nazi Labor Camps: a very detailed online exhibition featuring Sala, who, at the age of 16, was sent to seven different forced labor camps in five years and survived. Similar to Dita, she managed to preserve letters sent to her by loved ones awaiting her return, by any means necessary, in face of extremely dangerous circumstances. She did not reveal this until 1991, at the age of 67.
Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchins: A memoir by the grandson of David Schmulewski, the Polish leader of the Resistance in Auschwitz
The Tattooist of Auschwitz: A Novel by Heather Morris (screenwriter), published in 2018
If you've already read The Librarian of Auschwitz, what are your thoughts? Please share in the comments below.