The Librarian of Auschwitz

by Antonio Iturbe  (Author), Lilit Thwaites (Translator)

reviewed by Joan Smith

This book relates the true story of the world’s smallest library and the girl who risked everything to protect it.

I was impressed when my granddaughter expressed her desire to learn more about her Jewish identity after reading The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school. I had also read it in school, and we all wondered, “What if it had been me?” I hadn’t given the subject much more thought until I began working with Rozalie Jerome, daughter of Holocaust survivors. As we focused increasingly on the Holocaust in preparation for building the Holocaust Garden of Hope and forming the Holocaust Remembrance Association, it became apparent that I needed to learn more about this terrible time in history.

This particular book profoundly touched me. I love accounts written in first person, as I can identify and feel a part of the narrative. Always an avid reader I currently am a substitute teacher, which I balance with my Holocaust work. My favorite student population is teenagers, with all their angst and needs. Although my own Jewish grandparents with their siblings left Austria/Poland decades before the Holocaust, I have found their surnames in the Yad VaShem chronicles and can only imagine how many more family members were murdered in the Holocaust.

Fourteen-year-old Dita and her family were taken from their village in Prague and experienced the horrors of separation and internment in Auschwitz.

Due to the need to hide the terrible truths of the camps from the outside world, small family enclaves were established in the death camps, where visitors, such as Red Cross representatives, were presented with the lie of “normalcy.” Just under the age of compulsory labor, Dita was one of the older students in the camp school. Here heroic individuals managed to secretly teach interned children about their heritage along with required Nazi propaganda. The greatest secret was the books – eight volumes of fiction and non-fiction, in various states of disrepair. These had to be guarded during the day, lent out only in the strictest measure, and then stored each night in different places, lovingly wrapped and buried or otherwise hidden. Of course, there were always surprise inspections, and the job Dita took on as librarian involved all the care, cunning and courage she could muster. Somehow, the author manages to balance stories of danger, starvation, torture and even death with stories of courage, loving relationships, glimpses of ordinary life and hope that sustain many of the characters, representing real people — some who survived, some who didn’t.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a story that must be shared, not to belittle the modern problems confronting young people, but to legitimize their fears and hopes; to serve as inspiration to lift their heads, as well as to summon their hidden courage, kindness and vision not just to muddle through life, but to aspire to lift each other, and hence the world, out of the ordinary into the extraordinary.