Friday, April 26, 2019

The Librarian of Auschwitz

The Librarian of Auschwitz, Antonio Iturbe

It’s very hard to summarise this book, the simplest I have is: harrowing, yet hopeful. Iturbe has written a story based on the account of Dita Kraus, a fourteen-year-old girl who operated the library at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. As he says, “The bricks used to construct this story are facts, and they are held together in these pages with a mortar of fiction”.

Block 31 in the family camp in Auschwitz is unusual: the Nazis have agreed to allow children to gather in one place to play. What they don’t realise is that some enterprising adults, led by Freddy Hirsch, have surreptitiously started a school: “Each time someone stops to tell a story and children listen a school has been established”. Books are forbidden in the camp, because:
“Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology … have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think.”
Yet eight small volumes have surreptitiously made their way into Freddy’s hands, including A Short History of the World (H.G. Wells), A Russian Grammar, an atlas, and a Basic Treatise on Geometry. He gives Dita the responsibility of caring for them and hiding them from Nazi eyes:
“Dita caressed the books. They were broken and scratched, worn, with reddish patches of mildew; some were mutilated. But without them, the wisdom of centuries of civilizations might be lost … She would protect them with her life.”
They also have a few ‘living books’: adults who remember certain stories well enough to tell them to the children.

All residents of the family camp know they are part of some experiment, with a decision to be made about them in six months’ time, but no one knows what might be coming. Resident SS medical office, Dr Mengele, also known as Dr Death, may be wanting to use them in his terrifying experiments, or perhaps it is all part of the propaganda machine of the war.

Included are flashbacks of Dita’s earlier years and family life in Austria. There are moments of humanity as people care for one another and grieve their loved ones. There is also the horror of disease and permanent death, the threat of starvation, the choices people must make to stay alive and the sad reality of what some people must do to take care of themselves. There are awful descriptions of death by gas chamber, piles of bodies being thrown in mass open graves, and chilling accounts of what happens in experiments.

There are chilling matter of fact statements like: “during the night of March 8, 1944, 3.792 prisoner from the family camp BIIb were gassed and then incinerated in Crematorium 111 or Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Following this horrendous night, the remaining prisoners find a “black snowfall the likes of which has never been seen before” as the ashes of their friends and family members fall upon them: ‘“It’s our friends … They’ve come back”. They’ll never leave Auschwitz again.’

There is the recognition of humanity:
“If you look more carefully, all you can see is people, nothing more. Fragile, corruptible people. Capable of the best and the worst.”
This is highly recommended reading, while acknowledging it is also disturbing and confronting. I realise there are elements of fiction here, but there are also major aspects of fact, and it’s one way to be reminded of what happened in WWII to millions of people. As there is a continued rise in nationalism in many countries today, we need to remember what can happen when extreme versions take over: a truly horrific reality that many lived through, and even more died from.

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