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.               

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