Today I am beyond thrilled to be taking part in the Blog Tour for The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Itrube. This exceptional work of historical fiction brings to life the sheer will of a young Jewish girl, her love for books, and an infectious desire to transform fear into survival. It is one of the best WWII fiction novels I’ve read in a goof long while, and I have no doubt that this baby is going to stay on my keep shelf for many, many years to come.
Title: The Librarian of Auschwitz
Author: Antonio Iturbe
Translator: Lilit Zekulin Thwaites
Publisher: Ebury Digital
Publication Date: April 4, 2019
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, WWII Fiction
Themes: Friendship, Family, Relationships, WWII, Survival, the Holocaust
Features: Author’s Notes
My Rating: 5/ 5
For readers of The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Choice: this is the story of the smallest library in the world – and the most dangerous.
‘It wasn’t an extensive library. In fact, it consisted of eight books and some of them were in poor condition. But they were books. In this incredibly dark place, they were a reminder of less sombre times, when words rang out more loudly than machine guns…’
Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín 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 books the prisoners have managed to smuggle past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the secret librarian of Auschwitz, responsible for the safekeeping of the small collection of titles, as well as the ‘living books’ – prisoners of Auschwitz who know certain books so well, they too can be ‘borrowed’ to educate the children in the camp.
But books are extremely dangerous. They make people think. And nowhere are they more dangerous than in Block 31 of Auschwitz, the children’s block, where the slightest transgression can result in execution, no matter how young the transgressor…
I loved this book.
I mean, I may have bawled my face off more times than I care to admit while I was reading it, but I loved this book.
I appreciated how right from the get-go that Itrube established that this book is a work of fiction, and as such cannot be read as fact. But also, how he made it clear that this particular work of fiction is inspired by real people, real events, and real suffering. It’s heartbreaking, uncomfortable, profound, and above all it’s undeniably inspiring. As a result I found the horrors depicted on the pages easier to pallet than pure fact, whist maintaining a feeling that every moment was grounded in reality.
Now, being a librarian I like me some research. And the depth of the research that went into The Librarian of Auschwitz was evident from the outset. With the scenes so painstakingly crafted as to engender dread, the hunger to set my tummy rumbling, and the tenderness to remind us that humanity can still exist in inhuman conditions I was completely swept away. And through it all, Block 31 remains a relief from the horrors of Auschwitz, a balm against the war, and a place where children get to be children if even just for a little while longer. That is not to say that the family camp and the school were naive to their situations or had any delusions about their situation, but just that it provided few beautiful hours of respite every day.
And as a fellow book lover, I felt an immediate connection to Dita and the passion that she held for her little library. I felt her love for the book as an object of escape, as person who could bring a story to life, as a path to enlightenment, and as vehicle for resistance in it’s simplest form. And through it all the power of words, of stories, remains a constant theme reminding us of why so many tyrants have sought to burn books and ban knowledge in their quests for power. In return for the hope, joy, and distraction that these books provide Dita lavishes them with the love and care that any being would need to survive in an extermination camp.
But the part that I loved above all else was how books were the balms to every evil that befell the family camp in BIIb. Mass liquidation? Tell a story. Can’t celebrate passover? Tell many stories. Caught in a living hell where surviving just one more day is a victory? Tell many stories, day after day, after day. Do not let them die. Seek more stories, more books, more living libraries, and spread ALL of the words.
It broke my heart, however, to follow all of the disparate characters through their painfully real experiences and to their ends. From the stoic yet tragic optimism and dedication of Freddy Hirsch to the desperation and disillusionment of Rudi Rosenberg, The Librarian of Auschwitz is equal parts horror and hope. The characters provide a balance to one another with Leisl’s silence countering Dita’s quick wit, Morgenstern’s lightheartedness to Hirsch’s determination, and the innocent joy of the children to the oppressive weight carried by their parents.
Carefully crafted, expertly written and beautifully translated I would recommend The Librarian of Auschwitz to just about anyone. It is real and it is horrible, and yet it remains human and passionate and pure of heart. I love that love found a way to flourish in a living hell, that families found a way to stay loyal and strong, and that for once a few books get to stand alongside the heroes of the story.
Read it book lovers. This baby earns every bit of it’s 5 stars.
Antonio Iturbe lives in Spain, where he is both a novelist and a journalist. In researching The Librarian of Auschwitz, he interviewed Dita Kraus, the real-life librarian of Auschwitz. Lilit Zekulin Thwaites is an award-winning literary translator. After thirty years as an academic at La Trobe University in Australia, she retired from teaching and now focuses primarily on her ongoing translation and research projects. Dita Kraus was born in Prague. In 1942, when Dita was thirteen years old , she and her parents were deported to Ghetto Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz,. Neither of Dita’s parents survived. After the war Dita married the author Otto B. Kraus. They emigrated to Israel in 1949, where they both worked as teachers They had three children. Since Otto’s death in 2000 , Dita lives alone in Netanya. She has four grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Despite the horrors of the concentration camps, Dita has kept her positive approach to life.
Many thanks to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to join in this tour.