Auschwitz’s se­cret li­brary

Soon-to-be-pub­lished mem­oir by Dita Kraus pro­vides rare glimpse into the fam­ily camp

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By MAYA MARGIT

Dita Kraus was 14 years old when she was given a most un­usual task in World War II’s largest and most no­to­ri­ous con­cen­tra­tion camp: Man­age and dis­trib­ute a clan­des­tine col­lec­tion of books among the pris­on­ers in Auschwitz’s so-called fam­ily camp. In a new first-hand ac­count of her ex­pe­ri­ences, Kraus re­veals the har­row­ing daily work­ings of the There­sien­stadt fam­ily camp and the chil­dren’s block, and de­scribes how she and her mother strug­gled to sur­vive. Ti­tled A De­layed Life: The True Story of the Li­brar­ian of Auschwitz (Ebury Press), Kraus’s mem­oir is sched­uled to be re­leased in early Fe­bru­ary.

“When I was 10 I had to de­lay all my wishes and all my plans,” Kraus ex­plained to The Me­dia Line in re­la­tion to the book’s ti­tle. “Ev­ery­thing had to be post­poned un­til, un­til, un­til... This went on and on.”

Born in Prague in 1929, Dita Kraus (née Po­la­chova) came from a sec­u­lar so­cial­ist fam­ily, and as a young child was dis­con­nected from her Jewish iden­tity.

“I came across the word ‘Jew’ for the first time when I was in grade three,” she writes in her mem­oir.

When she was 10, war broke out and Nazi Ger­many-oc­cu­pied then-Cze­choslo­vakia. Kraus’s fa­ther was dis­missed from his job, and a grow­ing num­ber of re­stric­tions were placed on the coun­try’s Jewish com­mu­nity un­til 1942, when the fam­ily was de­ported to the There­sien­stadt Ghetto. The ghetto, which was es­tab­lished by the SS, at its peak housed nearly 150,000 Jews, all of whom lived in squalid con­di­tions be­fore be­ing sent off in trans­ports to Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps.

In 1943, at the age of 14, Kraus and her fam­ily were de­ported to Auschwitz-Birke­nau. Like other Jews from There­sien­stadt, they were sent to the BIIb com­pound, or fam­ily camp, con­sist­ing of 32 bar­racks where men and women slept sep­a­rately.

The li­brary of Auschwitz

The fam­ily camp was a unique phe­nom­e­non in Auschwitz. Un­like the vast ma­jor­ity of those in the in­fa­mous Nazi camp who were sep­a­rated from fam­ily mem­bers upon their ar­rival, 17,500 Czech Jews from There­sien­stadt were af­forded sin­gu­lar privileges in the fam­ily camp, in­clud­ing be­ing able to re­main to­gether.

“Men, women and chil­dren were in the same camp [and] we could meet out­doors,” Kraus said. “There was a day­care which was run by Fredy Hirsch, a marvelous per­son. It was a mir­a­cle that he was al­lowed to keep one house free [to be used as] a day­care for chil­dren.”

Hirsch, a teacher and Zion­ist youth move­ment leader, ran the chil­dren’s block, and some­how con­vinced the SS to al­low the bar­rack to be ded­i­cated to chil­dren dur­ing the day­time, thereby cre­at­ing the only ed­u­ca­tional oa­sis of its kind in Auschwitz. Hirsch also ap­pointed Kraus to be the li­brar­ian of the “small­est li­brary in the world.”

“I be­came re­spon­si­ble for the few books that were there,” Kraus said, adding that the col­lec­tion con­sisted of a dozen or so tomes, in­clud­ing an at­las and a Rus­sian-lan­guage in­struc­tion book. The books were smug­gled into the chil­dren’s block from the lug­gage of Jews who ar­rived to Auschwitz daily. When­ever a book was found, it would be sent there.

“The [books] were not en­ter­tain­ing,” Kraus re­called. Nev­er­the­less, they “were care­fully han­dled and cher­ished and al­ways came back in good or­der.”

In ad­di­tion to the small li­brary, some of the adults also served as “liv­ing books.” Much of the in­struc­tion was done un­der the radar, with camp of­fi­cials be­ing told that the chil­dren were learn­ing Ger­man or play­ing games.

“My hus­band was one of the [ed­u­ca­tors] in the chil­dren’s block,” Kraus ex­plained. “He and other adults who re­mem­bered sto­ries like Robin­son Cru­soe, Gul­liver’s Trav­els or The Count of Monte Cristo went from one group [of chil­dren di­vided by age group] to an­other, and in in­stall­ments [they] would tell them a chap­ter. There were no other ma­te­ri­als [avail­able]. It was all oral.”

No doc­u­men­ta­tion ex­ists that ex­plains the rea­son­ing be­hind the creation of the There­sien­stadt fam­ily camp, and it has been much de­bated by his­to­ri­ans. In 2002, the Czech-Is­raeli writer and Auschwitz fam­ily camp sur­vivor Ruth Bondy de­scribed the chil­dren’s block as a “strange and won­der­ful en­clave.”

The block, she wrote in her 2002 es­say Games in the Shadow of the Cre­ma­to­ria (trans­lated from the orig­i­nal He­brew), “So far, no of­fi­cial doc­u­ments that at­test to its ex­is­tence have been found in the Ger­man archives. It is as if there never was a chil­dren’s block. The chil­dren’s singing has been swept away by the wind.”

Still, de­spite the in­cred­i­ble privileges af­forded to the Czech pris­on­ers in this com­pound, they suf­fered from cold, star­va­tion, ill­ness and a mor­tal­ity rate com­pa­ra­ble to other parts of Auschwitz-Birke­nau.

“We were all hun­gry and were aware that our lives would end in a few months in the gas cham­bers,” Kraus said.

A chill­ing en­counter with Dr. Men­gele

In March 1944, the Nazis be­gan liq­ui­dat­ing the fam­ily camp and sent more than half of the pris­on­ers to die in the gas cham­bers. Kraus and oth­ers were ex­pected to go the same route, how­ever, the Ger­mans de­cided to send some of the re­main­ing sur­vivors who were still able-bod­ied and some­what healthy to Ger­many for forced la­bor.

Kraus re­calls how a chill­ing en­counter with the no­to­ri­ous Dr. Men­gele would al­low her to nar­rowly es­cape the fate of thou­sands of oth­ers in the fam­ily camp.

“I was cho­sen by Dr. Men­gele to­gether with 1,500 women to be sent to Ger­many to work, and that’s how we sur­vived,” Kraus said. “We were sent to slave la­bor.”

Be­yond the book’s in­valu­able Holo­caust tes­ti­mony, in­clud­ing Kraus’s im­pris­on­ment in var­i­ous la­bor camps across Ger­many as well as her ex­pe­ri­ences in the Ber­gen-Belsen con­cen­tra­tion camp, the mem­oir also de­tails her en­counter with her fu­ture hus­band, Otto Kraus, af­ter the war and how the two im­mi­grated to Is­rael in 1949 shortly af­ter the state’s es­tab­lish­ment. Kraus fur­ther discusses her love of paint­ing, which be­gan un­der the well-known artist and ed­u­ca­tor Friedl Dicker-Bran­deis, who taught her in the There­sien­stadt Ghetto.

But the in­cred­i­ble story of the chil­dren’s block and its tiny li­brary is per­haps the most in­spir­ing el­e­ment of Kraus’s mem­oir.

“Most of the staff on the kinderbloc­k [chil­dren’s block] were men and women barely 20 years old,” Kraus writes in her book. “They were aware of their ap­proach­ing death and must have been ter­ri­fied. Yet they spent their re­main­ing days with the chil­dren, cre­at­ing for them a kind of haven in this hell. They are, in my eyes, the real heroes of Auschwitz.”

(Beit Terezin Ar­chive)

TEACHER AND Zion­ist youth move­ment leader Fredy Hirsch, who ran the chil­dren’s block in AuschwitzB­irke­nau.

(Courtesy Pen­guin Books) (Courtesy)

DITA KRAUS at home in Is­rael. HER NEW mem­oir is com­ing out in Fe­bru­ary.

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