All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Librarian Of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

on December 10, 2018

The Librarian Of Auschwitz 
Antonio Iturbe (translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites)
Pan Macmillan AUS
2018, 423p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, 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 Freddy 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.

Honestly these are some of the hardest books to read, ones that centre around concentration camps and the persecution of people in the second World War. I’ve read a few books now that deal with Auschwitz and some of the other camps. This one is set in Auschwitz II-Birkenau which was a combination internment/execution camp. On one hand, this camp had a role to play for the external world, that people were being kept safe and treated well. There was no extermination happening, there were no gas chambers, children were even getting an education. However despite that, there were still thousands being executed in the gas chambers and the conditions were far from what was being presented.

Dita was born to well off parents in Prague. Displaced during the war, first to a ghetto community and then to Auschwitz, Dita is a teenager when she arrives at the camp. She’s granted access into Block 31, where the school is being kept and Freddie Hirsch, a Jewish leader asks her to assist in maintaining the school’s library. The Nazis burn books and even being caught with a book would mean execution. The school’s library is meagre – just a handful of books in mostly poor condition but Dita takes her new role very seriously. She devises a system of storing and even carrying the books on her person so that they won’t be detected during the Nazis routine inspections.

This is based on a real story – the character of Dita is real and a lot of what happens in this book is her story as told to the author in a series of emails and exchanged communications. It’s always so shocking to me when I read accounts of Auschwitz or stories based on what happened there, just how far humanity can fall. That people can actually do these things and believe in them, to other human beings. It’s always one of the hardest things for me, that a group of people can be ‘othered’ to such a successful degree that they become less than human, treated worse than any animals. And the saddest thing is, I can see how this happens…..I see the way there’s an attempt here to demonise refugees and asylum seekers, to reshape them into something else. I don’t want to believe that it’s easy but take a country with festering, lingering resentments over the first World War, add in a desire for power and return to a dominance and what they believe is standing in their way and you start to see it. The way that over time, suddenly a whole class of people stops being seen as such. But to get to the levels in this book, that happened during the Holocaust, is just next level.

There are some examples of truly brutal treatment in this book as well as neglect. People starving to death, dying of simple illnesses that are exacerbated by the lack of hygiene, medicine, warm clothes and shelter that the camps were known for. The conditions are crowded, often 2-3 people to a bed, people often sleeping in shifts. They are worked to the point of exhaustion and further and it seems that no one escapes without some sort of horrific loss or experience, if they survive at all. But even with all that, there are beacons of hope and light, such as Block 31 and the determination of some to educate the children of Auschwitz to the best of their ability with the few things they have available to them to do so. The role of librarian is one that Dita takes very seriously, despite the danger it puts her in at such a young age. To be honest, Dita rarely seems her age, possibly due to the fact that kids in concentration camps surely grow up faster simply by means of losing pretty much everything that childhood means. She also assumes responsibility for her mother in a way, who does not seem able to cope with some of what has occurred. Dita has a very strong, often brusque manner but that’s not to say that she isn’t frightened by what she sees and hears.

Dita lived a remarkable life and this book has made me want to learn more about her. It’s made me want to read more stories about people like her, despite the fact that I find them so hard at times. It’s about pushing myself out of my comfort zone and learning from this sort of thing because I feel like if we don’t learn from these things in history we are doomed to repeat them. To become complacent is to allow it to happen again. Recently I was talking to my son’s 4th grade teacher who mentioned that he was interested in concentration camps and wanted to know about them. Tell him, I said to her. If he’s asking questions, tell him. And let him learn and understand what happened to kids like him who should’ve been at school. Because sometimes, like a lot of kids, he lacks empathy and it can be hard for him to see what life is like even just in a pre-iPad and PS4 era let alone during a war. This book is perhaps not right for him just yet, but one day it will be.

It’s hard to say something like I loved this because this is a book of so much heartache and pain. But I’m glad I read it.


Book #198 of 2018

2 responses to “Review: The Librarian Of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

  1. Great review. It sounds like a heartbreaking story but worth the time.

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