Teenager Dita is imprisoned in Auschwitz along with her mother in the so-called “Family Camp,” a part of the notorious death camp complex designed to fool any international observers, such as the Red Cross, into thinking the Nazis are not actually killing anyone. One of the few privlidges of this part of the camp are “games” during the day to keep the children occupied so their parents won’t worry and will be more productive in their slave-labor jobs. The games, however, are really a sort of school in which the children are taught the heritage of the Jews and other subjects–including literature.
As in any repressive society, books and schooling are limited or, in this case, completely forbidden. Being found with a book in Auschwitz was punishable by death. Somehow, an ecclectic collection of eight books has been hidden in the children’s hut of the family camp. It is these that Dita is asked to protect as the hut’s “librarian.”
What I Liked
This is a young adult book, so all though nothing is hidden about what went on in the camps, it is told in a tone and tenor that cushions the shock–if that is even possible, while leaving nothing out. I loved that, in addition to the small collection of ragged print books, the school in the children’s hut also had the use of “Living Books.” These were the books so well known to a few of the “teachers” that they, too, could be checked out for use in a class. I thought how amazing it was that children, who are best introduced to literature through an adult reading aloud to them from excellent books, had this amazing way to escape, if only for an hour or so, from the hell on Earth that they were forced to endure.
I also liked that there was a substantial post script to the book that explained the true parts of the story. For school-aged readers this is crucial.
This is a a well-told story, all the more so since it is presented in translation. It is not, however, a substitute for first-hand accounts of life in Auschwitz even though it draws on real people, real experiences and real events. Students need, always, to be introduced to primary source material. There is too much fictionalized history in our world today–even if it is often well done.
This book would be fine when presented along side first-hand accounts of life at Auschwitz or other concentration camps. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum as an excellent collection of survivor oral histories and other materials. Here is a fairly recent newpaper account. Pairing it with a look at the Nuerenberg Trials would be a good lesson as well.
My Own Experience
At Indiana University, I was privlidged to be taught by the son of Auschwitz survivors. I never read, watch or hear anything about the Holocaust without remembering the vivid images he shared with us of the camp and of the family’s brief post-war life in Lodz. He introduced me to an excellent book, Children of the Holocaust, about life for the children of camp survivors. How it was growing up knowing, as my professor did, that your father’s first wife and first children died in Auschwitz and that your own parents met there.