August 22, 2018

Book Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

The Librarian of Auschwitz

by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites

Genres: History, Young Adult, World War II, Biography, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Length: 424 pages
Published: October 10, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.

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 volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.

Out of one of the darkest chapters of human history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope." 

Quote: 

"Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think." 

The audiobook cover (I listened to the book while on vacation).
Excerpt:

"Auschwitz–Birkenau, January 1944

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."

My Book Review:

An incredible, heartbreaking true story of surviving Auschwitz.

The Librarian of Auschwitz begins in medias res with fourteen-year-old Dita imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp with her mother and father. While starting right in with Dita's life in the camp is an unique narrative move, it bothered me that small flashbacks were constantly needed in order to provide background for her personality, history, and life prior to the Nazi invasion. For example, the book might describe Dita as a great reader, but then would have to provide a flashback scene to support this statement. Had audiences first met Dita and then seen her imprisoned in the concentration camp, this repetitive narrative move would not have been necessary. Iturbe's choice to structure the story this way made for some uneven writing moments that were unrelated to the fact that the book is a work of translation. Once I got past this style and got far enough into the novel that these flashback moments were no longer needed, the story was very moving and increasingly engaging.

It was undeniably brave of Dita to volunteer to help care for and hide the precious books in Block 31. Even though I am an obvious book lover, what stood out more to me than this were the stories of the people within Block 31. In the book's concluding author notes, Iturbe reveals that the majority of the characters within the story are based on real life and that he spent a considerable amount of time conducting interviews to tell the truth about their experiences surviving the Holocaust. The holes that remained are where he fleshed out the story with historical fiction. It is their stories of the will to survive that remain most memorable about this book.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, young adult books, or are interested in learning more about World War II and the Holocaust, I recommend this book. The narrative mode does require some getting used to, but once you dive into Dita's world and meet the people around her, you are compelled to find out the truth of what happened to each of them.


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