The Scars of History

Modern history is forever scarred by this horrific period. The meteoric ascent of the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, to the pinnacle of power bore many implications that escaped notice of many. He exuded power and charisma. What propelled him, however, is a vision, a vision of reclaiming the lost glory of the German republic. In order for this vision to be realized, the republic must be cleansed of Jewish influence; Hitler openly viewed Jews as his enemy. In his grand vision, the Holocaust was conceived. Fear and death are two words that are often equated with the Holocaust. It has left scars on many. What is left of it today are structures that serve as reminders and monuments to one of the bleakest part of history.

From these crumbs of history rose voices of individuals who bore witness to this dark phase of history. One such voice was Dita Kraus whose story was the inspiration behind Antonio Iturbe’s The Librarian of Auschwitz. At the age of nine, Dita, her family, and their fellow Jews were shipped from Prague to Terezin ghetto. Fate handed them yet another blow when they were transported to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In Auschwitz, they were assigned to Block 31 of the “family camp” where they were also forced to work.

Dita was assigned to work in the clandestine school put up by German Jew Alfred “Fredy” Hirsch. Hirsch was tasked to look after the children of Auschwitz. Fredy Hirsch was also an enigmatic but charismatic character, qualities which reeled Dita in. After Dita earned Hirsch’s trust, she was entrusted with an important task: to be the safe-keeper of a small set of books. It was a collection of inconsequential volume, a meager eight books, but within these volumes are seminal subjects written by different authors. Despite this risk, Dita, at the tender age of fourteen, rose to the challenge, and in the process, she has earned the title of being the “librarian of the smallest library in the world.”

“Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology—whether Aryan, African, Asian, Arab, Slav, or any other racial background; whether defenders of popular revolutions, or the privileges of the upper classes, or God’s mandate, or martial law—have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think.”

~ Antonio Iturbe, The Librarian of Auschwitz

Through Dita’s story, Iturbe weaves one of the seminal facets of the Nazi rule. When the Nazis rose to power, book burnings were ubiquitous. Books containing subversive texts and books which contains ideologies in direct contrast to Nazism were burned publicly. Anyone found in possession of these books were persecuted. or denounced The risk doubles inside a concentration camp like Auschwitz where authoritarianism is absolute. “They are holding something that is absolutely forbidden in Auschwitz. These items, so dangerous that their mere possession is a death sentence, cannot be fired, nor do they have a sharp point, a blade, or a heavy end. These items, which the relentless guards of the Reich fear so much, are nothing more than books: old, unbound, with missing pages, and in tatters.”

Dita was cognizant of the risks that her new task entails. She was willing to risk her own safety. If not her, who else will look after these books? Her age belied her maturity. Her experiences inside the Terezin ghetto and the concentration camp made her mature quite quickly. She took her new “job” seriously, guarding the books as though they were her own. She ensured that they hidden from plain sight during surprise inspections. She transported them in a secret compartment sewn under her dress. She mended those whose pages and covers are in tatters. The connection she established with the books was heartwarming, and reminds the readers of the same connections.

Dita’s story was juxtaposed on the horrors of the Second World War. As her story unfolded, so did the evils of the Nazi ideology. Iturbe, through his prose, managed to capture these evils and how it altered the course of history. The daily life in the camp, filled with uncertainty, was painted by Iturbe. It was not the most ideal of scenes. It was a bedlam where the smell of death permeated. As more Jews from various parts of Europe poured in, the extent of the horrors of the Nazi was beyond imaginable. Terror loomed everywhere. The denizens of the concentration camps were dispensable. Physical abuse and violence were prevalent. Missteps and miscues were not only reprimanded but were sources of punishments.

The novel also highlighted the “family camp”. Block 31 where Dita and her family belonged to is a unique group. Unlike the other blocks in the camp, families were allowed to stay together. A school was also established, complete with sporting activities and teachers. Nazi leaders conceived of Block 31 to deceive the international community, to belie the ugly realities happening in the death chambers. Jews were shipped to concentration camps but very few was aware of what these camps were for and a façade had to be put up. When the Red Cross failed to show up and inspect the “ideal” camp, the inevitable still happened – the “special” Block was dismantled. This underscored the complicity of the Nazis.

“It’s true: culture isn’t necessary for the survival of mankind; for that, you only need bread and water. It’s also true that with bread to eat and water to drink, humans survive; but with only this, humanity dies. If human beings aren’t deeply moved by beauty, if they don’t close their eyes and activate their imaginations, if they aren’t capable of asking themselves questions and discerning the limits of their ignorance, then they are men or women, but they are not complete persons.”

~ Antonio Iturbe, The Librarian of Auschwitz

Alfred “Fredy” Hirsch was a presence that loomed in the narrative, especially in the first half of the story. He was renowned for his heroic deeds during the Second World War; it helped save several children. He was charismatic and his presence invited respect. He was also reclusive but Dita still admired him despite iof it. However, his story was marred by his untimely demise which was subjected to speculation. Iturbe, in the postscript, mentioned that he aimed to vindicate Hirsch’s “tarnished” reputation through his novel. Hirsch and Dita’s paths also presented a moral crossroad. What if everything you believed a person to be is different from who he really is? Will it stop you from admiring him or her?

One of the novel’s greatest achievement was on how it underscored the importance of literature, books, and reading in general. During our darkest periods, these are things we can turn to and rely on. Within their pages, we lose ourselves and find solace. It is a form of escape from the horrors that hound us. Books and literature provide one of the easiest and simplest form of comfort. At one point when chaos reigned, Dita turned to Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švej. Their importance are again highlighted in the present. In this time of lockdowns and restrictions, books were some of the first things we turned to.

Set during a dark phase of history, a bleak atmosphere permeated all throughout Dita’s story. It explored familiar but dark subjects. Despite this, it was also brimming with hope. Amidst the strife, humanity scored some victories; it was not always black and white. In the ranks of the enemies are individuals willing to help free the Jews. Dita’s story was also about finding courage and strength amidst the strife. Dita’s story was a beacon that shone throughout the darkness and her voice was audible amidst the pandemonium. We can find the inner strength to roar back against the odds life throws us. Iturbe did a commendable job of painting Dita’s story and her indomitable courage without romanticizing or idealizing her personal victory.

Iturbe wrote such a compelling story that it was hard to put it down. However, Iturbe was only scratching the surface. There was something deeper but never fully gets explored. Iturbe painted a vivid picture of the daily activities in Block 31 but failed to fully capture Dita. Her personality was clouded by everything that was happening on the background. This somehow diminished the impact of her story. The postscript provided a I truly felt a connection with Dita. There was also one too many character but their storylines were superficially explored and did little to propel the story of “The Librarian of Auschwitz”.

“The strongest athlete isn’t the one who finishes first. That athlete is the fastest. The strongest athlete is the one who gets up again every time he falls, the one who doesn’t stop when he feels a pain in his side, the one who doesn’t abandon the race, no matter how far away the finish line is. That runner is a winner whenever he reaches the finish line, even if he comes in last. Sometimes, no matter how much you want it, being the fastest isn’t an option, because your legs aren’t as long or your lungs as large. But you can always choose to be the strongest. It’s up to you – your willpower and your effort.”

~ Antonio Iturbe, The Librarian of Auschwitz

It maybe lacking in some aspects but The Librarian of Auschwitz was a compelling read. It was the poignant portrayal of young girl’s growth in a period of uncertainty. It was about how she found the strength and the courage to roar back against the odds fate played on her. It was also a story about humanity. Amidst the darkness beaconed hope in individuals like Fredy Hirsch and Dita Kraus. It was the story of survivalism, strong will, and determination, one that is often encountered in many a Holocaust story. However, Iturbe reminded his readers that each of these stories deserve to be heard through the pandemonium.

It was not perfect but Dita’s voice resonated through the din. As the author told Dita during their interviews, “Everyone knows about the largest library in the world. But I am going to write a book about the smallest library in the world and its librarian.”

Rating

72%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 23%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

It was over a year ago that I first encountered Antonio Iturbe’s The Librarian of Auschwitz. It immediately piqued my interest because I was on a literary phase where I was enjoying historical fiction (I still do). I also just finished reading Heather Morris The Tattooist of Auschwitz but the writing deflated me. I was hoping that The Librarian of Auschwitz would rekindle my interest in novels set in Auschwitz. To some extent, it did. It kept me at the edge of my seat for it made me look forward to what happened to Dita. I felt like her story was a little watered down. I found it a little lacking for her story was drowned by everything that happened around her. It was a little challenging making a connection with her or any of the other characters. The Postscript and the “What Happened To” section did help me understand some of them better. Nevertheless, Dita’s story needs to be heard and The Librarian of Auschwitz did just that.

Book Specs

Author: Antonio Iturbe
Translator: Lilit Zekulin Thwaites
Publisher: Square Fish
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 407
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Based on the experiences of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked everything to preserve the legacy and vital knowledge of books during the Holocaust.

As a young girl, Dita is imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken from her home in Prague in 1939, Dita does her best to adjust to the constant terror of her new reality. But even amidst horror, human strength and ingenuity persevere. When Jewish leader Fredy Hirsch entrusts Dita with eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak into the camp, she embraces the responsibility – and so becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.

From one of the darkest chapters in history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope.

About the Author

Antonio González Iturbe was born on March 7, 1967 in Zaragoza, Spain. His family moved to Barcelona where he grew up.

At the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, he pursued a Bachelor Degree in Journalism. Balancing his studies while taking on various jobs, he eventually graduated in 1991. Post graduation, he worked as a reporter for a local Barcelona television show called Televisió de Ciutat Vella. He also created the free magazine Gratix. In 1993, he was assigned as the chief supervisor of the supplement television of El Periodico. He got to work in several magazines, periodicals, and media endeavors.

In 2004, he published his first novel, Rectos torcidos. His third novel, La bibliotecaria de Auschwitz was published in 2012 in Spanish. It was a critical success, being awarded the Troa Prize in 2013. In 2017, it was translated as The Librarian of Auschwitz. His latest novel, A cielo abierto (2017) won the  Premio Biblioteca Breve in 2017. Iturbe also works as a postgraduate professor and has provided lectures as a guest-professor in several universities.