This is not an easy book to read. This is hardly surprising because it is about Auschwitz. It is about one small act of resistance against the SS which was organised by a 15-year old girl, Dita Kraus, who lived to tell the tale. There was a library in Auschwitz. It consisted of eight books, some of them badly damaged, that was hidden under the floorboards of the school hut. There were also living books, people who remembered stories and told them to the children. The books that were hidden under the floorboards were not necessarily the most useful for children – an atlas, a Russian grammar, Freud, The Good Soldier Swejk and the Count of Monte Cristo in French. But the living books were gold dust. They were the tales that people remembered and were able to pass on.
I can already hear your question. What was the point? They were all going to die. The point was to live in the moment. To give the children something to look forward to – a story, a book in their hands, something to do. The point was to give them lessons, to tell them something about the world. And it was important because some of them, if not many, were going to return to that world.
The story is told as a novel because that allows Antonio Iturbe, the author, more freedom to interpret what happened especially when no record has survived. Even the names used are not the real ones, except where it is historically necessary. There is no point in using different names for Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele or Elizabeth Volkenrath. Iturbe does not make any attempt to disguise them.
One of the characters that he does not disguise is Fredy Hirsch who ran the school in which the library, at his instruction, was hidden. Fredy is presented as an ardent Zionist which he was. We hear that he told the children about how important it was that they should settle in Palestine. We do not hear of anyone arguing against him, although there were thousands of anti-Zionists in Auschwitz at any given time. But this is a novel. It concentrates upon the school and the library, and especially upon the experience of Dita Adler (really Dita Kraus) who was full of admiration for Fredy and upon her release from Bergen-Belsen she found her way to Israel where she settled.
There are issues about how Zionism was perceived in the Jewish community of this time which are dealt with in “For Two Thousand Years”, a contemporary novel, by Sebastian Mihail. This is not raised in this book, which could be perceived as a weakness. But the book reflects the experience of Dita Adler, and that is what is important.
We should not be distracted from the horror of the Holocaust because we know about what has happened since. Obviously, it does matter. But it is not the subject of this book. This book is about the years of unimaginable horror committed by humans against other humans during the Second World War. We have failed to make sure that it does not happen again because it has – in Cambodia, in Rwanda, at Srebenica in what was Yugoslavia. It has not happened on the industrial scale that took place at Auschwitz, and for that we can be grateful.
As I said, this is a difficult book to read. But if it makes you think about the world in which we live, the barbarity of which we are capable and the need to be vigilant against racism and the attempts to justify racism, then it has succeeded in its purpose.