How do you live when you’re surrounded by death?
The Librarian of Auschwitz, written by Antonio Iturbe, is an unforgettable story and a powerful testament to the courage of 14-year-old, Dita Kraus, who risked her life to preserve eight precious books that prisoners had smuggled into Auschwitz.
Prior to the war Dita lived a comfortable and carefree life with her parents in Prague. Her father, Hans, was a law professor. Dita was the only child of book loving parents, who filled their shelves with German, Czech and French books. As a young person Dita read everything without choosing.
When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, they started to persecute Jews. In 1942, when Dita was thirteen years old, she and her parents were deported to Ghetto Theresienstadt in the fortress town of Terizin, and later to Auschwitz, where Dita’s father died of starvation.
Dita and her mother were housed in the Family Camp, an experimental initiative of the Nazis, built as part of a pretense that Auschwitz was not an extermination camp. At its peak, 17,500 prisoners were assigned to the family camp at Auschwitz. Tragically, only 1294 survived. Prisoners suffered from hunger, exhaustion, illness and poor sanitation.
The notorious ‘Angel of Death’ Dr Mengle supervised Block 31 of Auschwitz, the Children’s Block but it was a young, charismatic Jewish leader called Fredy Hirsch who had oversight of the daily activities. He’d had the courage to suggest to the camp commander that one block be allocated as a day care place for the children, so they wouldn’t be in the way of the working prisoners.
Children received basic lessons from their instructors, participated in singalongs, played games and even staged little plays and charades.
It was a short reprieve, but it didn’t save the children from being murdered.
Dita survived almost three years of hunger, degradation and humiliation, not to mention the loss of her parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins and friends.
The question Dita confronted every day was:
“How do you live when you’re surrounded by death?”
It is a question that resonates with anyone living in a society that promotes ‘a culture of death.’ It is a question we would do well to consider.
Dita soon discovered that her primary focus must be survival. Anything less could prove fatal.
The first lesson any veteran inmate teaches a recent arrival is that you must always be clear about your goal: survival. To survive a few more hours and, in this way, gain another day that, added to other days, might become one more week. You must continue like this, never making big plans, never having big goals, only surviving each moment. To live is a verb that makes sense only in the present tense.
For Dita to survive she needed self awareness, diligence, and a firm resolve to minimise the risk. Put simply, know yourself, maintain discipline, show caution.
It seems right to ask, “What threatens our survival?”
For some, social media has become an addiction. This is not surprising as it is designed to be addictive. Addictions diminish who we are and in some instances cause death. More and more people are talking about the value of a digital detox, taking time away to reset, to reaffirm what is important, to rethink what a healthy relationship with social media looks like.
Nida Chowdry is a writer, producer, and performer based in New York City. She recently wrote an article about taking a break from social media. After a three month absence she says,
I finally believe I deserve to feel good. And by that, I mean, I don’t need to be online in ways that cause me damage and harm….I don’t like seeing a consistent timeline of the artifacts of people’s success…I did get tired of feeling like I was close to people when I was terribly alone in my life friends wise. Like… how can I be surrounded by hundreds of people that make me feel more alone? More less than? More crowded, diluted, unsuccessful? And above all, measured and constantly judged?
Dita was fortunate to have a small group of people who supported her, who believed in her, who could provide perspective, who could offer wise counsel.
Dita shared a deep bond with her mother, Elizabeth. When the Germans entered Prague we are given a glimpse of Dita as a nine-year-old girl, walking along the street holding her mother’s hand. Throughout the horrors of occupation and transportation and incarceration their solidarity remained intact.
Fredy Hirsch was known to Dita from her childhood in Prague where he was her sports instructor. Dita admired his courage and indomitable spirit. He was an inspirational educator who created a small oasis of relative normality for the children within the death camp. He regarded a child’s smile as an act of defiance.
Professor Morgenstern was an inoffensive-looking man. His white hair is close-cropped and he wears a pair of round glasses, perched on his nose. The first time Dita noticed the professor was during an inspection. She was feeling particularly vulnerable as she had several books in her possession. The professor adopted the persona of a dithering old man, diverting the attention of the guards with his clumsy mannerisms and self-deprecating speech. Dita came to respect the old professor with his butterfly net and his wrinkled origami birds tucked away in his pocket. She appreciated his wisdom. He once told her, “Your tears will come when the anger departs.”
A loving mother, an inspiring leader and a wise old professor – these were the people who encouraged Dita to live courageously and not to cower before the enemy.
If we are to counter the threats to our survival we need key people in our life who we can look to for understanding and encouragement and guidance. People who believe in us, care for us and are willing to stand buy us when we can’t find our way. Often, when we are at our lowest point we are reluctant to reach out, to seek help, to admit that we are not coping. Looking to other people for support reveals strength, not weakness.
The Nazis had a penchant for book burning. They realised the danger the printed page represented. People who read books are encouraged to think. They didn’t want people entertaining radical thoughts. No books were allowed into Auschwitz. To be discovered with banned material would mean certain death.
Dita was given the responsibility of caring for the eight books that prisoners have smuggled into Auschwitz.
“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…“
The eight titles were…
- An unbound geographical atlas with a few pages missing
- A Basic Treatise on Geometry
- A Short History of the World – H. G. Wells
- A Russian Grammar
- New Paths to Psychoanalytic Therapy – Sigmund Freud
- A novel in Russian with no cover
- The Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hasek
- The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
The library consisted of a handful of old books and yet over the months they enabled hundreds of children to walk through the geography of the world, get close to history, be inspired by fictional characters and learn math.
Dita regarded the books as sacred and tended to their needs like a doctor, or perhaps a surgeon, as each time a book needed repair, she stitched them back to life.
Dita caressed the books. They were broken and scratched, worn, with reddish-brown patches of mildew; some were mutilated. But without them, the wisdom of centuries of civilisation might be lost – geography, literature, mathematics, history, language. They were precious.
Books are transformative. They challenge our thinking, they energise our spirit, and they calm our fears. Books offer hope. The words on the page ignite our imagination, nuture our sanity, and call us out of despair. Books are a part of who we are. They are both friend and foe. They speak of beauty and mystery and challenge us to remain true, to persevere, and to stand strong.
Dita had a clear purpose. She was custodian of the forbidden books. She was responsible for allocating the books to the instructors and for keeping them safe, storing them each night in a secret compartment.
It was dangerous work and Dita understood the consequences of being found in possession of a book.
Fredy Hirsch was there to inspire courage but he was also careful not to downplay the risk. He says,
“…Of course it’s a risk, but we’re at war –although there are people here who sometimes forget that. We’re soldiers, Dita. Don’t believe those who say we’re bringing up the rear and then put down their arms. It’s war, and each of us has our own front line. This one is ours, and we must fight to the end.”
Dita was committed to her task. She realised that to survive, any activity that seemed to be a hint of normalcy was important.
Often fear stands in the way of us pursuing our purpose. Fear inhibits creativity and cripples desire. Antonio Iturbe writes about the destructive nature of fear. He says,
“Fear is a type of rust that undermines even the strongest convictions. It corrodes everything; it destroys all.”Antonio Iturbe
Dita discovered that survival is the ultimate defiance. But hope takes real courage as like ‘a razor-thin edge…each time you put your hand on it, it cuts you.’
For us, it’s knowing that having a clear purpose in life preserves hope.