‘When I was in second grade, I found a piece of paper on my desk with the words, “You are a Jew”. I went home and asked: “Mum, what is a Jew?” She explained that people have different religions, Christians, Protestants and Jews in Czechoslovakia. I said: “And we are Jews?” The answer was a simple “yes”.’
This is how Dita Kraus, the real person behind Antonio Iturbe’s Dita Keller, and the true ‘librarian’ of Auschwitz,recalls discovering her Jewish identity in a 2018 interview with the Jewish Chronicle.
This identity was to condemn her, together with millions of others, to the horrific fate of the Holocaust, the word ‘fate’ being here a particularly cruel, sarcastic misnomer for what was perhaps the most atrocious conception of the individual and collective human mind. Dita Kraus’s story is the story of so very many – and it is also remarkably unique, almost beyond mere rational belief. Her family followed the path from comfortable middle-class life to initial racial exclusion, then ghetto segregation, and finally the via dolorosa of consecutive concentration camps.
The radically critical, vital role of education is at the heart of Kraus’s experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in a way that seems utterly surreal, hallucinatory even. In the midst of their extermination camp, where inhuman labour beyond human endurance would literally set prisoners free from life (if they had survived the selection process, that ‘liberated’ others with the satanic expediency of the gas chambers), the Germans had set up a family camp that included a children’s block, complete with ‘classrooms’. There were meant to be no children in Auschwitz – they were selected by default for the gas chambers upon arrival. The family camp, and its 300 children, were intended to serve as a decoy for international inspectors, as a palliative for their consciences and to sedate both their reason and their humane instincts.
In this idyll of horror, which had a regular life cycle of six months, prisoners were assigned as teachers under the formidable leadership of Fredy Hirsch, a German Jew who had made his mark before the war as an exceptional athlete. Hirsch had already organised children’s groups in Prague and in the Terezín ghetto, where insubordination – for the children’s benefit – led to his transfer to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The rooms allocated to serve as classrooms there were decorated with murals painted by Dina Gottliebova Babbitt and Marianne Hermann, depicting characters from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Eskimos, flowers, storybook characters, all ‘normal’ children’s themes. The children learned geography and nursery rhymes, played games and staged a play – again, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – for an audience that included Josef Mengele. There were no pencils, but there were ‘living books’, namely prisoners who could recreate stories from memory.
Hard as it is to believe, since printed knowledge of any kind in the hands of prisoners was anathema to the Nazis, there were also real books, pilfered from the confiscated luggage of arriving deportees. Kraus herself, whose extraordinary role was to be the keeper of these books, remembers only A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells, in a Czech translation. Iturbe lists eight books as part of the ‘library of Auschwitz’: an atlas, a basic treatise on geometry, ‘a short history of the world’, a Russian grammar, a ‘French novel’, Freud’s New Paths to Psychoanalytic Therapy, a ‘Russian novel’ and the suggestively evoked The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek.
For Dita Keller, for Dita Kraus, for many of the unextinguished minds and consciousnesses of the otherwise dehumanised prisoners, certain books are threads connecting them to life. Cronin’s The Citadel is Dita Keller’s inner voice and guide, together with Mann’s Der Zauberberg, Wells’ Short History and especially the story of the not so very intelligent yet all too human Everyman that is Švejk. In a world of lethal silence they are the polyphony of voices, the human society and company that is under threat of imminent extinction. These books also provide a template of coherence, a background against which to compare the monstrous incoherence that should to this day still enshroud that moment and that act in human history.
The question behind every human figure, fictional or real, every gesture, episode or story, is the same: how can the human mind be capable of the very conception of evil, let alone its execution and implementation? When does evil begin? Does it ever – can it ever – stop? Have we listened to the story of the Holocaust? Heeded its horrors, felt deeply its traumas and significance? Or have we relegated it to the jurisdiction of History rather than to the more real responsibility of our souls?
The story that Iturbe puts together, interweaving the strands of many independent narratives, is utterly and relentlessly devastating, an agonising inventory of martyrdom and endurance, a cosmology of pain, suffering and evil, of a humanity striving to survive beyond all hope and against all odds. Yet the authorial praxis and presence is not always a comfortable one. Unlike Ebury in the UK, which has launched the book through its adult list, Henry Holt in the US defines the target audience as being in the 13–18 age group (the Kirkus review narrows it down further to 13–16s). This may explain the emphatically exegetical tone, the more directed and structured narrative agenda. Whoever reads The Librarian of Auschwitz, however, will not fail to be struck in the very heart of their being and humanity by all that it reflects, all that it tries to contain.
Reviewed by Mika Provata-Carlone
THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ
Written by Antonio Iturbe
Translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites
Published by Ebury Press (2019)
Read an extended version of this review at Bookanista
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
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