Book Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz

I received this ARC through a MacMillan/Shelf Awareness giveaway. The book is scheduled for an October 10th launch!

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The Librarian of Auschwitz is marketed as a novel but it reads as creative nonfiction in the journalistic style of Susan Orlean. Author Antonio Iturbe’s interviews with the real Dita Kraus and information from the interviews with Rudolph Rosenberg make the novel more true than not. Anne Frank and her sister show up in the book as well. The narrative quality of the writing makes it a little difficult to ascertain what portions of the book are fictitious (but we can assume that specific conversations, some scenes, character actions and reactions have been embellished for the story). I would have liked an author’s note that makes clear to teen readers what is true and what is not.

The book was originally written in Spanish and is translated by Lilit Thwaites.

The specifics of the Holocaust are horrendously and horrifically true, yet teenager Dita’s amazing story as protectorate of books for the children of the “family camp” school was new to me. Her strength and the strength of those around her in the face of their inhumane treatment is inspiring and humbling. Dita, the other children, and their teachers find refuge in the stories and facts from the eight illicit books they have and hide. It is this refuge, that allows Dita to hold on to her own humanity and to stand up for others. The novel is truly an ode to the power of books. If you liked “The Book Thief,” “The Librarian of Auschwitz” will keep you up all night reading.

I read a lot of YA and children’s Holocaust literature in my late 20s but haven’t been able to stomach it until recently. Perhaps my renewed interest comes from our current xenophobic and racist policies, the rise of authoritarian governments, the lack of concern from our young people regarding “democratic legitimacy,” or the Syrian atrocities and others going on right under our noses that make the cry “Never Again” a fallacy. Nevertheless, I am interested now. Here are some excellent pairings to go with The Librarian of Auschwitz. (There are many, many more.)

From those who were there or had family members there:
Night, Elie Wiesel
The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Maus,(1 & 2) Art Spiegelman
I never saw another butterfly, poetry from the children of Terezin edited by Hana Volavková

Also:
The Devil’s Arithmetic, Jane Yolen
Briar Rose, Jane Yolen
The Book Thief, Marcus Zuzak
Paper Hearts, Meg Wiviott
Milkweed, Jerry Spinelli

Younger children:
Number the Stars, Lois Lowry
Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, Meg Wiviott
The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark, Carmen Agra Deedy

Henry Holt/MacMillan has a  The Librarian of Auschwitz teacher’s guide.

Let’s Stand Together

“If you were on a airplane that was hijacked, and they said Jews go to left and everyone else go to the right, what would you do?”

I was at a non-denominational summer camp when this question came up. It was the summer of 1984; I was thirteen-years old, identified as Jewish, and there had been three hijackings in the news. My friends and I had just talked a Florida camper down from tears. She was sure that her plane would be diverted to Cuba.

These are the conversations you have when adults aren’t around. They are conversations that force you to face who you are and figure out what, if anything you would stand for. I remember my question to the questioner: “Wait. Do you know that the hijackers are against Jews?” The answer. “No. You don’t know if something is going to happen to the Jews or not.”  “Then no,” I answered. “I don’t want to die. I’d say I wasn’t Jewish.”

Because of how I choose to present my Judaism, it’s pretty easy to be overlooked as a just another white person who might raise a tree on December 25th (I did in 20 years of marriage to a non-Jew) and eat chocolate bunnies in the spring. (Who would pass up chocolate—not me.) But that ability to pass, often makes me privy to microaggressions and anti-semitism that sometimes happen within closed groups. To avoid that, I often declare myself as Jewish early in new work relationships. I’m no shrinking violet and it’s my moral imperative to not only speak up for all underrepresented people in negative situations but also to advocate positively for diversity and equality.

The growing anti-semitism in our country goes hand in hand with other messages of hate and othering against: Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and all brown and black people. The recent comments (from those who sit in the whitest White House in recent history) about Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty and our President’s on-going reaction to the racist and anti-Semitic events of Charlottesville  bring me to tears. There is no doubt that KKK and neo-Nazi members, and others who label themselves as white supremacists are emboldened by the friend they have in President Trump. I am equally aghast whenever I see Jewish organizations supporting this president.

What does one do when it looks as if our entire country has stepped into a time machine that takes us back to (reveals that we never left) an amorphous period between 1890 and 1969?

I recently found this New York Times Article, “Revocation of Grants to Help Fight Hate Under New Scrutiny After Charlottesville.” In summary, President Obama earmarked $400,000 to the organization “Life after Hate” to help members of hate groups out of extremism. When President Trump took office, he rescinded those grants. I’ve donated to the organization in the hopes that, as President Obama Tweeted:

In addition to my donation, I will continue to shut up and listen to those who face bigots daily simply because of the color of their skin. I will stand up, speak out for, and ask difficult questions about equality, diversity, and peace in my art, writing, personal, and professional life. I will suggest wonderful books to children and families that provide empathy and education. And if, G-d forbid, I am put in a situation where I have to declare my identity and face possible harm, I hope we will all stand together on the same side of that plane as human beings.