03 July, 2018

[Review] The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites

Series: Stand-Alone
Release Date: 10 October, 2017 (English version), 18 August, 2012 (Original Spanish)
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre: Young Adult Fiction/Historical Fiction/Holocaust
ISBN: 9781627796187
Edition: Audiobook and Hardcover
Rating: ★★★★★
Review Written: 16 June, 2018
Summary: Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.

Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the TerezĂ­n ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.

Out of one of the darkest chapters of human history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope.

See more by Antonio Iturbe at his Website (spanish).

The Librarian of Auschwitz broke my heart. Honestly, it’s not hard for any historical fiction to break my heart, but this one especially shattered it. Set in Auschwitz, one of the deadliest concentration camps in all of World War II, The Librarian of Auschwitz follows the life of Dita Kraus, a Jewish girl from Czechoslovakia (modern day Czech Republic), who undertook the role of Librarian in the Family Camp’s unofficial schoolhouse. At age 14, she was considered too old to attend the “school” but with a twist of fate, she was lucky enough to get an assistant’s position within the block to “help watch after” the children too young to work.

Though there is never enough food to eat, Dita bargains with a seamstress early on in the book after she’s nearly caught by the S.S. Officers during an inspection. With the interference of a teacher, she’s saved from certain death, but doesn’t wish to repeat it again. She’s alo warned by Dr. Mengele that he’s keeping an eye on her. Stricken by fear, Dita tries to decide if she needs to relinquish control her position to someone else, so that the school isn’t found out. Determined to show herself as being an adult in situations, she eventually decides to tell Freddy Hirsch about Mengele. Before she can however, she catches him meeting with someone who works higher up in the ranks of the S.S. The mysterious meeting leaves her even more confused than not and she spends weeks agonizing over whether or not Hirsch is a spy.

In the end, Dita learns the truth; Freddy isn’t a spy, but he is a gay man hiding that from the teachers and students in his block. Though repulsed at first, she does come to terms with it, and ultimately decides that it doesn’t alter her respect of him. Throughout the book, Dita also struggles with her slowly blossoming feelings towards different people, hitting puberty during the course of the novel. One such character is a young teacher in the block, Max, who is ostracized because his affiliation with the Communist Party.

Dita grows throughout the book, overcoming many hardships including the loss of her father and of the September arrivals in the BIIb camp, the apparent suicide of Freddy Hirsch, and the eventually dissolution of the family camp in Auschwitz. From Auschwitz, Dita and her mother are transferred to several camps including one where they work on an assembly line, and finally to Bergen-Belsen, a camp that killed prisoners by starvation instead of by gas chamber. Though Dita and her mother survive Bergen-Belsen, Dita’s mother dies of typhus before they can return to Prague leaving Dita an Orphan.

Though Dita’s story eventually ends happy, it’s a tough thing to acknowledge exactly what mankind is capable of. Seeing the number of children who were killed in the September transport, and the fact that each group was designated 6 months to live, and just the overwhelming tragedy of it all. This account, while mostly fiction, is based on the story of a girl who lived through it, who had to survive losing friends, family, and much more to a war that seemed never ending and pointless. I applaud Mr. Iturbe for his account and the wonderful translator, Lilit Thwaites for bringing the world this tale. I highly recommend you read this title to get a better grasp on just how horrifying the Holocaust was.

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