First Lines: 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.
It’s April, so it’s that time of year when I dive head-first into Holocaust texts. (My students read Holocaust novels this time every year.) A couple years ago, one of my students got hold of an ARC of this book and I never forgot about it. I wanted to see how it was, but until I’m knee-deep in Holocaust talk at school, I can’t bring myself it immerse myself in it.
Based on the experiences of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the story of a girl who risked everything for books. After being sent to Auschwitz from the Terezin ghetto in Prague, Dita adjusts to the terror of Auschwitz by volunteering at the school in the family camp, Block 31. When the Jewish leader of the school, Fredy Hirsch, asks Dita to take care of the eight smuggled books they have in their collection, Dita accepts. Never has a librarian had more responsibility rest on her shoulders. One book left out in the open means certain death for those nearby. But with this responsibility comes great joy–the joy of the written word in a place that tries to squash happiness.
I liked Dita. I thought she was a good lead because she had the curiosity and spunk needed to keep moving in one of the worst genocides in modern history. And the fact that she is a real person whom the author interviewed and molded his character around makes her that much cooler.
But Dita wasn’t the only narrator, and I liked and disliked that. Sometimes Dita’s story line was a little boring, so it was nice to switch to someone like Rudi or Fredy (especially Fredy). But sometimes it would switch for one paragraph and then switch back and it was hard to follow exactly what was going on. I’d be halfway through the next paragraph before I realized what had happened and that I’d been picturing it wrong. But the other characters made the story more rounded, so…yeah, I’m conflicted on this.
This book did not try to grind off the edges of what happened in the Holocaust. There were definitely moments I was hoping it would avoid some of the horrific things, but every gory detail has been included. I mean, it’s good that those details are out there and have survived, but I wasn’t necessarily ready for it. It often showed up in unexpected moments.
Also what was really interesting about this book was the parts about Auschwitz that I’d never heard of before. I’ll not pretend that I’m an expert, but I do revisit the topic every year and I try to read up on it each time. But things like the family camp or some of Dr. Mengele’s truly bizarre quirks (experiments not included) were new to me. Things like how Auschwitz actually functioned (i.e. how people moved from one camp to another, how Kapos got their power, etc.) had never really sunk in until I saw it played out here. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful.
But what I really appreciated was all the exhaustive research the author included at the end, describing who was real and what happened to them after we saw them last in the story. I liked that he was vivid in his descriptions of his interviews with Dita. I know the story is a work of fiction, but there’s way too much there that you just know it true. It rings differently than fiction does. Some stuff you just can’t make up.
This was horrific and touching and hopeful and depressing. But if you picked this up because “Auschwitz” was in the title, then you already were hoping for that mix.