There was a question that Antonio Iturbe just couldn’t get out of his head. Tucked away in Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, amid detailed accounts of the world’s most famous libraries, such as that at Alexandria and Washington, D.C.’s Library of Congress, he’d come across mention of a secret library that was maintained in the most unexpected of places: Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“How was it possible to have a library in the middle of hell?” he wondered.
The reference was “just a few lines,” the Spanish journalist and author explains, but it consumed him—it launched him on a journey that would span continents and generations and introduce the world to a story, The Librarian of Auschwitz, that was on the verge of being lost forever.
The library mentioned in Manguel’s book consisted of eight titles and was part of the school set up in the Children’s Block of the Family Camp at Auschwitz. In 1943, thousands of Jews were transferred from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, where, unlike other prisoners, they were allowed to remain as family units—the children were even permitted to spend their days at a special day camp run by Fredy Hirsch, a German-Jewish inmate. The existence of this camp and school were an anomaly, and it is believed that it was maintained in case the Red Cross wanted to follow up on their earlier visit to Theresienstadt, which Nazis presented as a model of their “positive” treatment of Jews. Dr. Mengele, the notorious SS officer known for his grotesque human experiments, also drew many of his subjects from the Children’s Block.
“As I looked for more information,” Iturbe explains, “I found important clues.” A book by historian Nili Keren included an interview with Ota Kraus, who said that it was a girl named Edita who cared for the books in the camp. “One day on the internet,” Iturbe continues, “I found a reference to Ota Kraus’ book, The Painted Wall, but it was impossible to find. Then, quite by chance, I found a website where you could buy the book, but you couldn’t pay by credit card or PayPal; you had to make a money transfer. I wrote to the email contact and received a response—and the signature at the end of the email was ‘Dita.’ I had a hunch. I replied asking if she was any relation to a 14-year-old girl called Edita who had been the teenage librarian of Block 31. She answered: ‘I am that teenager…but I am now 80 years old and I live in Israel.’ It was a gift from destiny.”
Iturbe and Dita Kraus (she and Ota had married after the war) became friends, and as they talked about her life and her time as the librarian at Auschwitz, those earlier questions that had wracked his mind gave way to new ones and to an ever growing respect for the young girl who had risked so much for literature. But Dita—she was having none of it.
“She scolded me as if I were a kid,” he remembers, “because she said I exaggerated her role and her courage. She is very insistent that she did not do anything different to other inmates. She is a very humble person.”
Of course, Dita was indeed downplaying her bravery. Books were strictly banned in concentration camps. Had she been found with a book on her—and there was never any way to know when a surprise inspection might take place—it would have meant immediate death. Death may have been expected for the prisoners at Auschwitz, but even living in the shadow of the crematoria, beneath a sky blackened by the endless outpouring of ash, the will to live is not something that disappears.
Dita survived a horror that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews, that ripped away her family and the life she had known. And her story survived with her. But, other than a few lines here and there, it was a story that remained with her alone.
“I am not a Holocaust expert or even a specialist historian,” Iturbe says. “I found this story not by studying the second world war but by following threads in books.” Dita was in her 80s when Iturbe found her—and that’s relatively young for survivors of the Holocaust. There will soon be a day when no one will be left who witnessed the Nazi genocide, who survived it, and then all those stories that survivors have kept alive within themselves will also be lost. But now, the story of a girl who risked everything for eight tattered books, for tales and memories that were used to give hope to so many hundreds of children in the absolute darkest of places, has been preserved, in a book. “Literature,” Iturbe reflects, “is a battle against forgetting.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.