The Librarian Of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
Translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites
Review To Follow
‘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…’
Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the Terezín ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious books the prisoners have managed to smuggle past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the secret librarian of Auschwitz, responsible for the safekeeping of the small collection of titles, as well as the ‘living books’ – prisoners of Auschwitz who know certain books so well, they too can be ‘borrowed’ to educate the children in the camp.
But books are extremely dangerous. They make people think. And nowhere are they more dangerous than in Block 31 of Auschwitz, the children’s block, where the slightest transgression can result in execution, no matter how young the transgressor…
The Nazi officers are dressed in black. They look at death with the indifference of a gravedigger. In Auschwitz, human life has so little value that no one is shot anymore; a bullet is more valuable than a human being. In Auschwitz, there are communal chambers where they administer Zyklon gas. It’s cost-effective, killing hundreds of people with just one tank. Death has become an industry that is profitable only if it’s done wholesale. The officers have no idea that in the family camp in Auschwitz, on top of the dark mud into which everything sinks, Alfred Hirsch has established a school. They don’t know it, and it’s essential that they should not know it. Some inmates didn’t believe it was possible. They thought Hirsch was crazy, or naïve: How could you teach children in this brutal extermination camp where everything is forbidden? But Hirsch would smile. He was always smiling enigmatically, as if he knew something that no one else did. It doesn’t matter how many schools the Nazis close, he would say to them. Each time someone stops to tell a story and children listen, a school has been established. In this life-destroying factory that is Auschwitz–Birkenau, where the ovens burn corpses day and night, Block 31 is atypical, an anomaly. It’s a triumph for Fredy Hirsch. He used to be a youth sports instructor, but is now an athlete himself, competing against the biggest steamroller of humans in history. He managed to convince the German camp authorities that keeping the children entertained in a hut would make it easier for their parents to do their work in camp BIIb, the one known as “the family camp.” The camp high command agreed, but on the condition that it would be for games and activities only: School was banned. And so Block 31 was formed. Inside the wooden hut, the classrooms are nothing more than stools, tightly packed into groups. Walls are nonexistent; blackboards are invisible. The teachers trace isosceles triangles, letters of the alphabet, and even the routes of the rivers of Europe with their hands in the air. There are about twenty clusters of children, each with its own teacher. They are so close together that classes are whispered to prevent the story of the ten plagues of Egypt from getting mixed up with the rhythm of a times table.
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