Reviewed by Ian Lipke
This book has an interesting history. The subject of the book Dita Kraus tells its readers of the request that came via her internet address from the Spanish author Antonio Iturbe for details about the books on the children’s block in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Correspondence followed and a face to face meeting before Iturbe went off to write “a book about the smallest library in the world and its librarian” (frontispiece). Dita Kraus goes to a lot of trouble to ensure we don’t miss the point that “despite the historical correctness of the narrative, it [the book] is not a documentary. It is a story born both from my own experiences and the rich imagination of the author” (ibid). Sometime after publication Lilit Thwaites, recently of La Trobe University, translated the book from Spanish to English.
“The Nazi officers are dressed in black. They look at death with the indifference of a gravedigger” (1). So opens the story of the Librarian of Auschwitz, and one immediately brings to mind Javier Maria’s citing of William Faulkner: “Literature has the same impact as a match lit in the middle of a field in the middle of the night. The match illuminates relatively little, but it enables us to see how much darkness surrounds it” (front material). This is a book about overwhelming darkness defeated by a light in the tiny hands of the Jewish people as they went to their deaths in their millions. Much has already been written about Auschwitz and similar places but nothing has measured up to the story of the brave little girl who kept a library in a concentration camp under the very nose of Death itself.
The story is told in a rich narrative that is replete with information about the life of a Jewish inmate in a concentration camp. The examples are graphic (I think of an eyewitness account of the effects of Zyklon-B gas on inmates), the writing style is bruising and no squeamishness is allowed to conceal any part of a drab existence. As occurs often these days we see the marriage of the fictional narrative with the non-fiction recount. Knowing the factual basis of this story makes it easier to accept the fictional element but, even so, did two young people risk all for each other’s company at an electrified fence? I suspect most people would answer, “Yes.” Was Dr Mengele really searching for Dita during all those months? Did the practices that the Jewish prisoners implemented have a real expectation of saving lives? I suspect so.
The story has done its job if readers find themselves questioning. People do not ask questions unless prompted to do so. Sixty-seven years had passed between the end of the war and the publication of Iturbe’s book in Spanish. Most of the players in the darkness of war have now gone. Other generations have grown up never knowing at first hand the disease that was Nazism. It was an opportune moment to prompt imaginations and let loose the queries of war.
Public interest really responds to a child living in danger, the threat increasing day by day, the ominous shadow dogging her footsteps. Who would not rise to her defence or to opposition should such a threat ever rise again? In an age that knows terrorism, a perception that evil is on the march must be combatted. Iturbe knows the fallow field into which he launched his book. People struggle to believe that an evil age is here, but tell a story in a book, and watch the talk turn as it would never have done in the absence of such a disturbing prompt.
It well may be the case that Iturbe just wanted to tell a good yarn. He has done so. His translator is to be praised for her efforts which, if the quality of the English language is any criterion, were of a very high standard. However, the book offers much more than a narrative. It is the story of a dark period in history, a tale of a hero in the clothes of a child, and the saga of an enemy force that was illuminated by that tiny match in a field and ultimately destroyed.
A wonderful tale. Some would say, “Compulsory reading.” I would support that.
By Antonio Iturbe (Trans. Lilit Thwaites)