La bibliotecaria de Auschwitz

AUTHOR: Antonio G. Iturbe
GENRE: Historical Fiction
READER’S NAME: Eduardo de Lamadrid
DATE: 5/27/13

Antonio G. Iturbe has been a cultural journalist for over 20 years, working for magazines, film periodicals, television programs, and newspapers. He is the author of the series of children's books "The Cases of Inspector Cito", which have been translated into five languages. La bibliotecaria de Auschwitz is his third novel and the winner of Fundación Troa prize for literary quality and the ability to transmit human and social values.

The novel submerges us into the life of the concentration-extermination camp of Auschwitz, and specifically into a family camp where some families and hundreds of children were interned. This was a special camp, since those unable to work, including children, were usually sent direct to the gas chambers. The family camp, known as Barracks 31, was a Nazi propaganda ploy to fool an awaited inspection by the Red Cross, which in the event, never materialized. The camp was run by Freddy Hirsch, a German Jew, who started a clandestine school for the children with a small library comprised of only eight books.

Dita Adlerova, a brave and lively 14 year Jewish Czech girl, was put in charge of the small library, which contravenes Auschwitz regulations, as books are expressly forbidden. Because books open doors, make one dream, and help all those children forget, albeit briefly, the horror which they are living through.

The novel is narrated in the third person, but is through the eyes of Dita that we see the real life in Auschwitz, and subsequently in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

And although the life and destiny of the Jews in those terrible places was at first glance totally gray and monotypic, there also existed there all kinds of political clans, spies, traitors, people who would prostitute themselves for a bread crumb, collaborators, and people with good hearts. The goal was to stay alive at all costs, setting aside all other considerations.  And the books provided a glimmer of hope that allowed Dita and others to carry on.

And if the maintenance of the library provides the central framework for the novel, it is intertwined with many other brief stories, in the main tragic and sentimental. Dita witnesses the death of her father, her mother, and many of her companions, but she never gives up and manages to go back to Czechoslovakia at sixteen, and then on to Israel.

Mention should be made of the impressive detective-like research and documentation that the author has carried out to write this novel (the repeated anachronistic  allusions to the State of Israel can be fixed with the word Palestine) and which is palpable in the reading about daily life in Auschwitz and persons who inhabit the camp, both fictional and real. An epilogue is provided that details the future of the real persons described in the novel, both Nazis and prisoners. Dita herself is based on a real person, Dita Kraus, now an octogenarian living in Israel, whom the author interviewed and befriended, and whose continued zest for life provided the inspiration for the novel.

The author's style is simple and yet forceful. It is a hard-nosed book in which no crude details are spared, but which never resorts to titillation or scaremongering. Yet at the same time the novel emphasizes those gestures of love, tenderness, loyalty, overcoming, and heroism of which human beings are disinterestedly capable in the most dramatic circumstances. It is a book written with conscience and heart, whose final chapters are especially powerful and brilliant. If the dialogue at times seems somewhat stilted, it does not detract from its overall plausibility.

This is not simply another novel about Nazism and the Holocaust. It is a homage to literature, to the power of books, and above all, to Dita Kraus and Freddy Hirsch and all those who risked their lives to institute a small school and library in the middle of hell and thus gave hope and some semblance of a childhood to children who had nothing left to lose.

This is an important novel which deserves its place alongside other classics of Holocaust literature by Wiesel, Levi, Mendelsohn, and others. It is eminently suitable for translation as English readers need to learn about this remarkable story. Kudos to Iturbe for rescuing it for posterity!

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