As I was consulting Amazon to get the full title of the book I just read, I noticed that there’s another book entitled The Librarian of Auschwitz. It’s a novel written by Antonio Iturbe, and was published in 2017. Iturbe’s award winning story is a fictionalized story about Dita Kraus, who, according to the fictionalized account, was taken from her home in Prague by the Nazis in 1939. In the fictionalized account, while she was imprisoned, Jewish leader Fredy Hirsch trusted Dita Kraus to care for eight volumes that were secreted into the prison camp, hence the title of the book– The Librarian of Auschwitz.
I did not actually read The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe. I read A Delayed Life: The True Story of the Librarian of Auschwitz, which was published in February of this year, written by Dita Kraus herself, and is the true story about her life. A Delayed Life is currently a less famous book than The Librarian of Auschwitz is, but having finished reading Dita Kraus’s true story, I kind of wonder why a fiction book needed to be written. Dita Kraus has led an extraordinary life and, according to her official Web site, she’s still going strong, even though two of her three children have died.
Today, Dita Kraus, neé Polach, is 91 years old, and according to her true life story, she has a very positive outlook on life, despite weathering some true tragedies. I was amazed by her resilience. This woman survived years of forced labor in Nazi concentration camps, moving to a completely different culture after surviving the camps, being barred from her homeland after it was overtaken by communist rule, the death of her only daughter when her daughter was a teenager, the mental illness and eventual death of her eldest son, and the death of her husband. She’s a remarkable woman. I’m sure the novel based on her life is excellent, but her true story is extraordinary and definitely worth reading.
The real Dita Kraus was born and raised in Prague in what was once Czechoslovakia. In 1939, the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and began to persecute Jewish people. In 1942, when she was thirteen, Dita and her parents were deported to Ghetto Theresienstadt. As the time of deportation nears, Dita notices her friends being shipped away, mostly never to be seen or heard of again. Dita Kraus landed in Auschwitz in December 1943. She survived, mainly because she was young, strong, and lied about her age. She told Dr. Josef Mengele that she was sixteen, rather than thirteen, and when he asked her what her occupation was, she said “painter”. He asked her if she could paint his portrait. If not for that lie, she probably would have been sent to the gas chamber, as many of her contemporaries were.
Before they would show up for their appointment to get on the trains going east, the friends would give away their possessions. Up until that point, Dita Krauss had enjoyed a relatively normal life. Her parents were middle class and educated. She went to school and had friends, including one little girl named Gerta. Dita and Gerta got along very well, but their parents didn’t hit it off. As I read about how the families got together for dinner one night for the sake of their daughters, who were friends, I was reminded of a similar dynamic between my parents and a former friend’s parents. Dita’s story about how she and her friend tried to get their parents to be friends was very relatable to me. Of course, it turned out that the friendship was doomed to fail… just as it did in my case.
Dita and her parents later went to Auschwitz, where Dita’s father died. She and her mother managed to survive Auschwitz, and were later transferred to Hamburg, then Bergen-Belsen, where Dita’s mother succumbed. Dita managed to survive the Holocaust, although she writes that she became extremely thin and weak, and she saw many fellow prisoners die of typhus and exhaustion. After the liberation, Dita worked as a translator for the British. She was filmed working with the British as the documented the horrors of the Holocaust. Many years later, Dita Krauss would travel to London and watch the footage. She recognized herself in one film segment lasting about a minute. The staff members that curated the footage were very excited; very few people who saw the films recognized themselves, especially after so many years. The staff eventually made the footage into a video and sent it to Dita in Israel, where she and her late husband, the late author Otto Kraus, settled after the war.
Dita and her husband, Otto, initially worked on kibbutzes in Israel, which was very interesting to read about, since I had heard of them before I read A Delayed Life. It was fascinating to read about the way people cooperated for everyone’s sake. Dita and Otto were finally able to move into their own home, thanks to money paid to them by the German government after the forced labor. I was amazed at how Dita is able to express herself. She even manages to inject wry humor at times, as well as little conversational asides. For instance, on a trip to Japan, she had the chance to eat crab. She writes that Jews aren’t supposed to eat crab (or other shellfish), but then she casually adds “but I don’t keep kosher”.
Dita writes that although she’s lived in Israel since 1949, she still identifies as Czech, rather than Israeli. For many years, she was forbidden to go to her homeland, thanks to its being ruled by the Communist Party since 1948. I especially enjoyed reading about her first trip “home” to Prague in 1989, right before the Velvet Revolution. When she visited, Prague was still under communist rule, but that fell apart just months later. She includes an amusing anecdote about how an airport official kind of “winked and nudged” about falsifying documents in their passports so they wouldn’t get in trouble with Israeli authorities when they went home. The official didn’t know that Israelis didn’t live under the same rules the Czechoslovakians did. Very soon after that visit, Prague was once again open to everyone, and Dita could go home when she wanted to… although most of the people she knew were gone forever.
Dita Krauss’s story reads as if she’s sitting in a room with the reader, speaking casually to them. She reminded me of my grandmother, talking about the past. I almost felt like she could be a friend of mine as she described the horrors of the Holocaust and the events that led up to being deposited in the children’s section of Auschwitz. I felt dread for her as she described how life changed when the Nazis took over so much of Europe. To be honest, it made me think of how things are in the United States today, although since I live in Europe, I’m kind of watching them from afar.
I think I expected this book to be just about the Holocaust. But there is a whole lot more to Dita Kraus’s story than her time as a prisoner. After the war, she and her husband moved to Israel and basically had to completely give up their culture. They even renamed their son, born Peter Martin in Czechoslovakia, when they moved to Israel. He was henceforth known as Shimon, and he completely adapted to life in Israel, forgetting his Czech heritage. Although he was very handsome and finished school and his time in the Israeli military, Shimon eventually suffered from mental and physical illnesses and died wheelchair bound at the relatively young age of 69.
Dita’s daughter, Michaela, was born healthy and named after a child she had once known and adored. Michaela got very sick when she was still a little girl, suffering from juvenile cirrhoses of the liver. She craved salt, but was healthiest when she ate nothing but certain fruits and vegetables, without salt. The disease made Michaela swell with edema, which she felt was ugly. The girl died after having taken too many diuretics, perhaps in a attempt to shed edema before meeting her boyfriend.
Dita’s youngest son, born ten years after Michaela and thirteen years after Shimon, is still living and is a doctor, as is his wife. His name is Ronny, and he spent years in the United States before moving back to Israel to be close to his beloved mother. Dita has four grandchildren
Not only was Dita Kraus’s story interesting and occasionally even funny and entertaining, it was also educational on many levels. I don’t tend to read a lot of novels these days, so I don’t know if I will ever get around to reading The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe. I am, however, glad that I took the time to read Dita Krauss’s real story. Far from being just about how she’d safeguarded books in a prison camp, this book is all about Dita Krauss’s incredibly life story, which transcends her time in the prison camps. I highly recommend it.
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