Monday 30 March 2020

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

Dita Kraus survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She and her mother were  moved to Belsen just before it was  liberated. Her mother died just before the liberators would have repatriated them. Whilst in Auschwitz Dita was part of the school that is organised in Block 31. It wasn’t supposed to be a school – just a place where children could be entertained. Dita was responsible for looking after the eight books they had acquired.  

Antonio Irurbe gives us much interesting detail about how the camp worked with particular reference for Block 31. As well as the physical books, there were living books; these were adults who would relate stories to the children. Pencils were created by shaving splinters of wood to a point and then charring the ends of them.  The children could only write a few words with these makeshift pencils. They were sharpened by the handle of a spoon that had been filed to make a point. 

It is probable that Block 31 was kept as a show case as a visit from the Red Cross was expected, Once it became clear that the Red Cross was no longer coming the children’s room was dismantled.  

We also have graphic details about Belsen in the last days. Many of the inmates of this part of Auschwitz were moved to Belsen in the panic that ensued as the Germans realised that they were losing the war. This camp was largely abandoned and the inmates more or less left to rot. Iturbe takes the liberty of allowing Dita to come across Anne and Margot Frank. Is that really likely? 

This is a fictional account but Irurbe worked closely with the real Dita. She herself tells us that “he also collected facts from other sources” (Dita’s forward to the English translation). 

He also includes accounts of other characters who lived in the camp. This may detract for the reader who just wants a story, as we don’t get quite so close to these characters as we do to Dita, but could be important for the scholar.               

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Theatres closing, shortages and desolate cities

I’m getting towards the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944 in the fourth book of the Schellberg Cycle. There are now several deaths. The theatres have been closed in Germany but an underground movement is putting on satirical plays. I’m about to get to the bit where some of the girls are forced to eat rotten potatoes. The twins are managing their father’s factory and have lost a supply chain – another factory is bombed out and its owner is killed. The cities are desolate and deserted. 

A kind of Dunkirk spirit reigns. Those with homes intact have taken in those who have been made homeless by the war. Perhaps we need to remember that we don’t have the monopoly on that spirit. Have you seen the Italian guy conducting a sing-song from his balcony? Or the Spanish fitness instructor leading a class form the roof of his apartment block? Or the Spanish applauding the medical staff? 

There is a dark side of course and there was then. Some profited from the distress of others then and some will be doing that right now. 

Ironically I’ve been invited to Stuttgart by the Stolperstein people. They would like me to read from The House on Schellberg Street and / or Clara’s Story. They have (or had) an event running from 18 March until 24 June. Fat chance, I think. But we may be able to run some sort of online event. 

Image by RD LH from Pixabay                 

Sunday 1 March 2020

Ambulance Girls by Deborah Burrows

Maisie Halliday works as an ambulance driver. She had been a Tiller girl and in fact her ability to perform thirty-two high kicks in one minute enables her to fight her way out of a tricky situation.
 She meets and falls in love with American Michael Harker who is involved in ousting hostile spies.    
Deborah Burrows offers us a taste of what it must have been like working with ambulances during the Blitz and the continuing war.

Her characters are well drawn and we can empathise with them easily.

There is some good story-telling here as well. There is a lot of intrigue and we are kept guessing about exactly who is giving away secrets.

Burrows’ has clearly researched her era well.  I know a lot about this epoch but I’ve learnt even more by reading this novel.

This is also very well written and veers a little more towards the literary than much other fiction in this genre.

The author also provides a short but useful bibliography at the end of the novel.