The power of books

There are only eight books in her library. Dita protects every last one of them with her life. Prisoners are forbidden to have books. To be caught with a book is an instant death sentence. The SS guards will send you to the gas chambers. Or worse, they will send you to Dr. Mengele’s experimentation block.

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe is based on the true story of Dita Kraus, a 14-year-old Auschwitz prisoner. The few books in her library are tattered, ripped and worn. They are used to teach children in a secret school in Block 31, the family block. It is one of the few places in the camp where there are young children. Those who come to the camp who are deemed unfit for labour (mostly children, the elderly and pregnant women) are sent to the gas chambers. Block 31 is a propaganda tool. It exists to give outsiders the impression that life at Auschwitz is ordinary.

Although it involves difficult subject matter, The Librarian of Auschwitz is not a dark story. It is a story of life and hope. The secret school created by the prisoners in Block 31 serves to go beyond simple teaching: it serves to create a sense of normalcy for the children, to prevent them from giving into despair, to show them that life goes on and to give them hope for better days.

As the librarian, Dita keeps track of which books were lent to which teacher. She collects the books after school and returns them to their secret compartment. At night, she mends their worn out spines with thread and glue smuggled in from the working block. To expand her library, Dita invents the idea of a living library, where adults recite stories and events to the children from memory.

As time goes on and conditions in the camp worsen, Dita draws strength and assurance from her library. The books allow her to forget, even if it’s just momentarily, the terrible place where she’s living.

“A book is like a trap door that leads to a secret attic: you can open it and go inside. And your world is different.”

As a library assistant, I’m always in awe over the power books can hold. The books Dita had were mildew stained and broken but they gave her the ability to transport her mind to somewhere far from the nightmare of Auschwitz. Something as simple as an atlas gave a group of children the chance to see all the major cities and countries on the earth. A history book allowed them to learn about civilizations of the past. They gave hope to a group of people who would otherwise have none. For me, The Librarian of Auschwitz really enforced the importance of libraries. They are so much more than just a collection of books – they open doors to the past and let you dream of the future. Ultimately, they change lives. In Dita’s case, they saved lives.

-Lesley L.