I find war stories horrifying. They always send a shiver down my spine, even if they’re fiction. I guess that’s because you know something similar has probably happened somewhere and continues to happen across borders even today. Real-life accounts are worse because someone has actually suffered and you can’t fathom how humans can be so cruel to inflict unimaginable pain on others.
‘The Librarian of Auschwitz’ by Antonio Iturbe is based on the experiences of Czech teen Edita (Dita) Kraus who was a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Though Iturbe interviewed Dita to write the novel, the book is actually a fictionalized account of real-life events.
Dita and her parents led a privileged life in Prague—her father was a reputed lawyer—before being taken to Auschwitz and then to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Besides narrating Dita’s experiences at the camp, Iturbe also richly imagines the lives of those around her while building a narrative that stays as close as possible to real instances.
When she was 14, Dita had one of the most dangerous jobs in the camp. She was to look after the eight books that prisoners had smuggled into Auschwitz. Books were forbidden—anyone found in the possession of one would be executed—and these books were used at the secret school started by prisoners for the children of Block 31.
Dita loves books, and takes her duty as librarian seriously. She’s forever mending torn pages and checking on those who are have borrowed the books to see if they are taking proper care of them during “school hours”. Dita also doesn’t hesitate to take risks. From sewing deep pockets in her clothes to hide books to disguising herself as a man to visit her ailing father to assuming her mother’s identity to spare her from carrying a corpse, Dita shows immense courage despite being acutely aware that death is just one wrong move away.
The violence in graphic. It hurts to read. People are dragged to gas chambers, already stuffed with dead bodies. They are beaten and starved—a lone piece of carrot in their soup is considered a luxury. And there is the ever-looming threat of becoming one of Dr Mengele’s lab rats. He is notorious for cutting up people without anesthesia, when not conducting life-threating experiments on them.
However, aside from the difficult content, reading the book is fairly easy. The words just flow and the stories seem to merge. No one is made to seem unnecessarily heroic. Holocaust sufferers and survivors are all heroes in their own rights and it is this fact that shines through in The Librarian of Auschwitz.
This is an important story not only because it’s about the power of hope in the gravest of situations but also because you realize the cost of war just isn’t worth it.