I finished reading the Librarian of Auschwitz yesterday. I will not do a book review, although it is a very good and well written book, but I will go into some aspects of the book which brought the Holocaust quite near to me in a way I did not expect.
However before I do that I have to mention Dita Kraus.
Dita served as librarian in the block set up for children in Birkenau, at the time she was still a child herself, with only a handful of books. Fredy Hirsch also ran the children’s block, creating a network of Zionist instructors who filled their young guests’ time with educational and cultural activities. One of these young educators was Otto (Ota) Kraus, Dita’s future husband.
Aside from the few physical books they also had some ‘living books’ these were the teachers who would tell the stories from books they had read, and had memorized. One of the teachers was Mrs Magda. the living book she would convey to the children was “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils” The story is basically a fairy tale about a Swedish boy , Nils Holgersson, whose “chief delight was to eat and sleep, and after that he liked best to make mischief”. He takes great delight in hurting the animals in his family farm. Nils captures a goblin in a net while his family are at church and have left him home to memorize chapters from the Bible. The goblin proposes to Nils that if Nils frees him, the goblin will give him a huge gold coin. Nils rejects the offer and the goblin turns Nils into a goblin, which leaves him shrunken and able to talk with animals, who are thrilled to see the boy reduced to their size and are angry and hungry for revenge. While this is happening, wild geese are flying over the farm on one of their migrations, and Martin, the farm’s white goose attempts to join the wild ones. In an attempt to salvage something before his family returns, Nils holds on to Martin’s neck as he successfully takes off and joins the wild birds.
The book was also adapted as an animated TV Show in 1980. As a 12 year old boy, I would be hooked to the show, and glued to the TV when it was one . When I saw the name.Nils Holgerson, mentioned in the Librarian of Auschwitz it gave me goosebumps. It amazed me that those children in Block 31 in Auschwitz were in awe by the same character as I was as a child.
The author of ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils’ was Selma Lagerlöf.
She was a Swedish author and teacher. She published her first novel, ‘Gösta Berling’s Saga’, at the age of 33. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she was awarded in 1909. Additionally, she was the first woman to be granted a membership in the Swedish Academy in 1914.
Gösta Berling’s Saga was made into a 1924 silent film directed by the Finnish Jewish director Mauritz Stiller starring Greta Garbo.
The book ‘The Librarian of Auschwitz’ also makes reference to the German author Karl May. Dita had read a Karl May book once. She really liked Karl May’s stories of the Wild West about Old Shatterhand and his Apache friend Winnetou. I too, as a young boy like those stories. They were made into TV movies starring Pierre Brice and Lex Barker, who also portrayed Tarzan a few times.
What both Dita and I didn’t know , at the time we would read Karl May’s books or watch the adaptations on TV , is that Karl May was also one of the favourite authors of Adolf Hitler.
During the war Hitler reportedly admonished his generals for their lack of imagination and recommended that they all read Karl May. Albert Speer recounted in his Spandau diaries.
One other thing that touched me and brought the story into the 21st century, is a passage on page 394. I am not going to say too much about that part because I don’t want to ruin the book for those who haven’t read it yet. But I think it will resonate with many people.
“They make sure she eats her food ration and periodically gets out of the Hospital, that she doesn’t stay with her mother for too many hours at a time and that she wears a mask”
I would recommend everyone to read the book. Although it is about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, and although some parts are harrowing and very sad and gut wrenching, it does also manage to give a positive message. A message of resilience, perseverance , courage and hope.
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