How do you live when you’re surrounded by death? Why study history and literature when all sense of humanity is lost?
These are questions that a new book, The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, grapples with as it pulls back the curtain of history to reveal the story of Dita Kraus (née Poláchová), a survivor of the Holocaust who served as the secret librarian of the children’s block in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp before 3,792 of the prisoners were sent to the gas chambers in March 1944.
Iturbe, a Spanish journalist (the book was translated into English by Lilit Thwaites), interviewed Kraus for the book and linked her story with the narratives of other historical figures. Though a work of fiction, characters like Josef Mengele, who conducted horrific experiments on children in the camp, and Fredy Hirsch, who ran the children’s block and did everything in his power to enlighten and save them, are brought to life.
“The descriptions are different from the reality that I lived through,” Kraus, 88, wrote in an exclusive email interview with PEOPLE from her home in Netanya, Israel. “No one who wasn’t a prisoner in Auschwitz can describe it. In fact, for those horrors no words exist in our vocabulary.”
Despite being unable to fully capture the hell she barely lived through, Kraus finds the book “riveting” and the study of literature in general an important way to acquaint “readers with important historical facts.”
In the book’s postscript, Iturbe acknowledges that some people might consider the school and the library an act of “useless bravery” because Hirsch and the children ended up dying. But for Iturbe, the school and Dita Kraus’ courageous act to hide the books show how the teachers and students attempted to maintain their humanity.
“If human beings aren’t deeply moved by beauty, if they don’t close their eyes and activate their imaginations, if they are capable of asking themselves questions and discerning the limits of their ignorance,” Iturbe writes, “then they are men or women, but they are not complete persons: Nothing significant distinguishes them from a salmon or a zebra or a musk ox.”
By sharing Dita Kraus’ story, he challenges readers to rethink what they know about being human.
Born in 1929 in Prague, Dita Kraus was 13 years old when she and her parents were sent to the Terezín ghetto. As harrowing as life was there, she developed a love for painting (her art teacher, Friedl Brandeis, would later die in Auschwitz) and met Fredy Hirsch, who was a Zionist and sports instructor. In December 1943, her family, Hirsch, and many others were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her father, Hans, died there.
What set her family’s experience apart from others was their inclusion in Block 31, the family camp, which historians believe was established by the Nazis to hide the fact that Auschwitz was actually a site of genocide.
“We were the only camp with children, it was all families. Fredy Hirsch ran the children’s block so I was able to work in the block and was responsible for a few books,” Kraus said in a translated video testimony.
In the children’s block the students were given “secret, improvised lessons, taught in small groups according to age,” according to Holocaust.cz. While they were hungry, none of the children died from malnutrition while going to the school. They’d found a semblance of an oasis.
“Fredy Hirsch ordered the counselors to make sure the children bathed, cleanliness and hygiene were essential,” Kraus said, but he couldn’t prevent their deaths. “After three months in Birkenau they were loaded into trucks. That night everyone was gassed to death. Fredy died too.”
But Hirsch didn’t die with the children.
According to the book’s postscript, before the mass murder on March 8, 1944, Hirsch was asked by the Resistance to lead a camp uprising after they learned of the plan for thousands in the camp to be exterminated. Hirsch “went off to think about the proposal,” Iturbe writes and later died because he overdosed on Luminal. But Iturbe and others question whether his death was actually suicide. Did he ask for “a pill because of a headache” and get an overdose of tranquilizers instead?
“He did not commit suicide,” Kraus wrote in her interview with PEOPLE. “He would never choose to die and leave all the children.”
For Kraus and Iturbe, Hirsch was a hero. But did his heroic deeds matter if the children he cared for died anyway? Iturbe touches on this in his novel:
“It was worth it. Nothing has been in vain. Do you remember how they used to laugh? Do you remember how wide-eyed they were when they were singing ‘Alouette’ or listening to the stories of the living books? Do you remember how they jumped for joy when we put half a biscuit in their bowls? And the excitement with which they prepared their plays? They were happy, Edita.” [Miriam, a character from the camp, tells the fictional Dita after she asks about the worth of the school.]…
“It’s enough to be happy for as long as it takes a match to be lit and go out.”
After the mass murder, teenage Dita and her mother, Elisabeth, were taken to Bergen-Belsen — the same camp where Anne Frank died. They were later liberated in April 1945.
“It’s hard to rejoice when you’re surrounded by corpses,” Dita Kraus said during her video testimony. “Thousands more died in Bergen-Belsen, among them, my mother.” Elisabeth died only months after the liberation.
Dita was left to navigate the world alone. She would later marry Otto Kraus and moved with him to Israel, where they both taught English and raised their three children (their only daughter would pass away at 19 after a long illness).
Though free, Dita Kraus was unable to forget Hirsch and her time as the librarian of Auschwitz. Here’s more from the interview:
At what age did your childhood end?
This is a most difficult question. A person’s childhood develops into youth and adulthood. I did not pass these stages. The war started when I was ten and the restrictions imposed on the Jews made me mature early. I was forced to manage on my own already in the ghetto when I was 13. On the other hand I was forbidden to attend school after grade 5 and had huge gaps in my education. Perhaps I didn’t have a real childhood.
Were the small moments of happiness Mr. Iturbe writes about in the book actually possible? When, if ever, did you feel happiness while under the Nazis?
One could not feel happiness in those circumstances. Only some relief from time to time.
Did books and serving as the librarian help you survive?
Reading books has always been part of my life and I cannot understand how a person can spend his/her days without books. Although many books have had a decisive influence on me, sadly, the books in Auschwitz would not have helped us to survive because we were all marked for the gas chambers.
What helped you survive the most?
Perhaps an initial good constitution and luck, luck and, again, luck.
How/when did you first fall in love with your late husband?
I met Otto [Kraus] a few weeks after I returned to Prague in 1945. I knew him from the Kinderblock in Auschwitz, but we had never spoken. At first it wasn’t love. He was not the tall, good-looking prince of whom I had dreamt. Only slowly did I become fond of him but my feelings grew, until they became the bond that lasted our whole life.
How do you understand good and evil?
Too philosophical for little me.
What do you want people to learn by reading about your experiences?
People should understand: This is what man is able to do to others, be forewarned.
Have you reached a state of forgiveness? Or is it not possible?
I don’t know. With the passing of years I am less and less able to comprehend how human beings could do what was done to us. The generation of Germans who perpetrated those horrors is no longer alive.
In a world filled with hatred and nationalism, what is your advice?
I have no advice. Greater minds than mine are trying to change hate into tolerance. But others are fanning the flame of hatred and discord. And they claim to do it by divine command. That is why we need to teach tolerance in schools. And books can play a part by acquainting readers with important historical facts.
How is your life still impacted by what happened to you and your family?
Surviving almost three years of hunger, degradation and humiliation, the loss of my parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins and friends has influenced my whole life. I still discern what matters in life and what is trivial. I love carefully, because the loved ones die and I need to avoid the pain. These are only the main features of the impact, there many more residues of my holocaust.
The Librarian of Auschwitz is on sale now.