The Librar­i­an of Auschwitz: The Graph­ic Novel

  • Review
By – April 10, 2023

The true sto­ry of Dita Kraus, a young Jew­ish woman who sur­vived Auschwitz, was fic­tion­al­ized in Anto­nio Iturbe’s Span­ish-lan­guage nov­el, trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish in 2017. (A Delayed Life: The True Sto­ry of the Librar­i­an of Auschwitz is Kraus’s own mem­oir, and The Children’s Block is a fic­tion­al­ized account of the same events by her hus­band, Otto Kraus.) Now, Sal­va Rubio and Lore­to Aro­ca have inter­pret­ed Iturbe’s work in a graph­ic nov­el for young adults. They have sim­pli­fied some of the his­to­ry behind Dita Kraus’s suf­fer­ing and lib­er­a­tion, but the impact of the orig­i­nal nar­ra­tive remains. As in any account of the Holo­caust, larg­er ques­tions arise about why and how the geno­cide of Europe’s Jews could have occurred. Read­ers will learn about the anom­alous BIIb sec­tion of the camp, where fam­i­lies and chil­dren were briefly deceived about their ulti­mate fate in order to con­ceal the truth from the out­side world. While the end­ing of the graph­ic nov­el offers some cau­tious notes of hap­pi­ness, the text and pic­tures nev­er­the­less con­vey the harsh real­i­ties of the infa­mous death camp.

Like most of the Nazis’ Jew­ish vic­tims, Dita’s fam­i­ly in Prague is unpre­pared for the upheaval. She is pre­sent­ed as a book­ish child with lov­ing par­ents. She reads all the time, and her father delights in spin­ning a globe to teach her geog­ra­phy. But this world is about to end. Aro­ca cap­tures the Nazi inva­sion in a series of pan­els: first boots, then motor­cy­cle wheels, then sol­diers, then the swasti­ka flag. Rubio suc­cinct­ly express­es Dita’s response: “ … that was the day she start­ed to fear men.” Briefly, in a vis­it to the Jew­ish ceme­tery, Dita fan­ta­sizes that the myth­i­cal golem of her native city will pro­tect its Jews. Her dream soon vanishes.

Although Auschwitz is clear­ly a loca­tion of phys­i­cal and men­tal tor­ment in the nov­el, there is rel­a­tive­ly min­i­mal focus on its worst hor­rors. Rubio does not avoid Josef Mengele’s grotesque med­ical exper­i­ments, allu­sions to gas cham­bers, and an image of the cre­ma­to­ria, but most of the book takes place in the children’s block and sec­tion BIIb. When Dita first arrives, she is relieved that the sit­u­a­tion is not worse. She meets the mys­te­ri­ous Fred­dy Hirsch, a Zion­ist who has tak­en on the role of edu­cat­ing the chil­dren per­mit­ted to live, if only briefly, in the camp. Although she reveres Fred­dy, her con­fu­sion about his motives, and his will­ing­ness to give chil­dren hope when he knows they will be killed, cause her great anguish.

In the end, the Nazis’ machi­na­tions of deceit are revealed, and they send the osten­si­bly pro­tect­ed res­i­dents of BIIb to their deaths. As they are deport­ed, the grays and earth tones that are most promi­nent in the book alter­nate with flash­es of red. Then, a pit of bod­ies takes up a full page. The author and illus­tra­tor move, per­haps ambiva­lent­ly, between images of ruin and sug­ges­tions that a mir­a­cle” saved Dita, that a will to live” played a role in her sur­vival. The thought of such redemp­tion is often tempt­ing to authors ana­lyz­ing the Holo­caust. Here it is sub­tle, appear­ing in descrip­tions of Dita’s life after she has been freed. But despite its more ambiva­lent ele­ments, this graph­ic nov­el is dev­as­tat­ing­ly powerful.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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