Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz

The Librarian of Auschwitz The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In short, a very powerful, multi-faceted story that I highly recommend for teens and adults.

This is a fictionalized account of real people and events during the Holocaust, primarily set at Auschwitz. While the last names have been changed, the characters are very closely based on real people and the story follows the known facts, with a little fiction to fill in the gaps and make the story more real and personal. While there are a few side-stories, the main story follows Dita, a young teenager in Auschwitz who is recruited by Fredy Hirsch to be the librarian for the illegal school he has started for the children under the guise of simple child care that he has somehow managed to convince the Germans to allow (their ulterior motives are revealed much later in the story). Amazingly, the prisoners have managed to smuggle in and keep hidden 8 books, and Dita is placed in charge of maintaining them, supervising and coordinating their use, and keeping them safely hidden from the Germans. This is a job she does with commitment and dedication, even though it places her at great personal risk.

This is an amazing story that encompasses several themes. No matter how many stories about the Holocaust I read or hear, I will never stop being shocked at the horror, cruelty, and depravity that went on during that period. This book clearly depicts that, yet it also shows some glimpses of "normal" life that went on even amidst the horror, such as the eternal conflict between teenagers who think they are ready to be adults and their parents who want them to stay children just a little bit longer, friendships, gossip, and even love blooming between young couples, daring to dream of a future even while facing almost certain death. But most of all, it shows the determination to maintain dignity and fight to survive, despite the horror, and the risks Dita and others were willing to take to give the children a distraction, some sense of normalcy, and even a little happiness, even if it was for a short time.

There is a quote at the beginning of the book that really resonated with me, and it really sets the tone for the whole story:
"Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology—whether Aryan, black, Asian, Arab, Slav, or any other racial background; whether defenders of popular revolutions, or the privileges of the upper classes, or God’s mandate, or martial law— have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think."
Even though this is something I already knew, at that moment I found it very moving and profound. I found the idea that Jewish prisoners could have smuggled and hidden not one but several books a romantic notion and thought it was just a device for a good story, not realizing at first this was based on real people and events, and now I find it truly amazing they were able to do what they did, and can't help wondering whatever happened to those books after the camp was dissolved with no opportunity to smuggle them out. It would be amazing if they could be recovered and put in a museum.

As an almost-librarian and former educator I could readily identify with the desire to retain and protect as many books and as much knowledge as possible, even at great personal risk, and I particularly appreciated the descriptions of Dita lovingly caring for and painstakingly repairing the books, and recognizing that there was value in a seemingly silly and frivolous novel. I also found the idea of the "living books" very intriguing. At first, it made me think of a recent library trend of literally checking out real people (though in that instance it is primarily to learn about other cultures and experiences, rather than for storytelling), but then I realized it was really a return to the original oral storytelling tradition that pre-dates the written word and shows how both are important for the longevity and preservation of stories and information.

For those who might be concerned this book may be too depressing or too much of a tear-jerker, I did not find that to be the case. While it does depict horrific and tragic events, the story is told in a more matter-of-fact way and not in an overly emotional way. Yes, it is shocking and horrifying and sad, but it is also defiant and hopeful and inspiring. While I did get a little teary at times, overall I was left with a feeling of admiration for the strength and determination of the characters and real people that inspired them.

My only criticism of this book is that at times the writing shifts back and forth from a beautiful, almost lyrical style, to a dry, straightforward reciting of events typical of a history book or biography. I realized later this was likely due to the book being based on real people and events, and trying to stick as closely to the known facts as possible and do justice to all of the people the characters are based on by filling in their stories without detracting from Dita's. While there were only a few passages where this transition was a bit jarring, I do wish a little more editing and re-writing had been done to make it flow a little more seamlessly.

This book is a little hard to place definitively into a specific genre because while it is technically fiction, it very closely follows the known facts, and I think was only fictionalized in order to fill in the gaps and make it easier for the reader to relate to the "characters" on a personal, human level and see what some of them were thinking and feeling, rather than viewing them in a detached way as historical figures.

While marketed as a YA book, I really think it will be a YA/Adult crossover with many adults reading it (and I would probably put a copy in the adult fiction section as well). I would recommend this book to fans of The Book Thief as well as dystopian themes related to censorship such as Fahrenheit 451, and anyone who is interested in historical fiction, non-fiction, or biographies related to Auschwitz specifically, or the Holocaust, WWI, or Jewish history in general, or to those who appreciate good stories about the fight for survival or to preserve knowledge and culture.

There are so many different perspectives from which to view this story, it really could appeal to a wide audience, and I predict it will be on many classroom reading lists, and a likely candidate for the Mildred L. Batchelder Award for outstanding youth literature originally published in another country.

[I received this book as a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

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