Dita Kraus: The Librarian of Auschwitz
By: Holly Eberle
Seventy-five years ago, on January 27th, Auschwitz-Birkenau, a World War II concentration camp in Poland created by Nazi Germany; was liberated by the Soviet Union. On this anniversary, ALA Council passed a tribute resolution to honor Dita Kraus. You may be familiar with Dita’s story from Antonio Iturbe’s 2012 YA novel called The Librarian of Auschwitz. That is what I thought of when I met ALA and ALSC member, Julia Nephew, in the Philadelphia Airport. We were on our way home from the ALA Midwinter Conference when Julia told me about the resolution and the dedicated, courageous woman.
Dita Kraus was born Edith Polokova in Prague on July 12, 1929. Her family were secular Jews. She never identified as a Jew until it was imposed upon her by the Nazis. Her country was invaded and occupied by the time she was 10 years old. She was 13 when her family was imprisoned in the Theresienstadt ghetto in the Czech Republic.
It was in December 1943 that Dita arrived at Auschwitz in Poland. She was sent to the Kinderblock, which was located in Birkenau. Birkenau is technically a separate camp from Auschwitz, but is commonly referred to as Auschwitz II since it is just down the road. Dita became the Librarian of Auschwitz and a man named Freddy Hirsch became her colleague, the Kinderblock teacher.
Birkenau is where the massive life or death selections happened right on the train platform. Nazis tricked their victims into bringing suitcases full of belongings with them on the deportation trains. Other prisoners were responsible for sorting through those suitcases and whenever they found a book, it would be smuggled into the Kinderblock for Dita Kraus, Freddy Hirsch, and the children.
Fredy got permission to run a type of daycare in the Kinderblock with the justification that children would not disturb their parents while they were working. Nazis relied on slave labor, so they agreed to the idea. The child prisoners of the Kinderblock were scheduled for various medical experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele. Many of them were murdered. Still, Freddy and Dita continued their education as best they could.
Dita arrived at Auschwitz with her parents but was quickly separated from them. Her father never made it out. Her mother was murdered at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Her colleague Freddy Hirsch was murdered in 1944.
Despite being surrounded by tragedy, Dita fell in love with a man named Otto during the war. They went on to marry in 1947 and immigrated to Israel in 1949. She became an English teacher and raised two sons there. She has decided to tell her story now because of Holocaust deniers and because there are those who are starting to forget.
As a profession, we honor and are grateful to Dita Kraus for her dedication, courage, and commitment to the ideal of a library as a beacon of humanity in the midst of barbarism. We express our gratitude for the example that she has set to librarians across the world. Thank you, Dita.
She says she did not know that she would face death if she was caught with a banned book. All books were banned in Auschwitz and Dita’s library even featured a banned Jewish author, Sigmund Freud. Freud’s books were among those famously burned by Berlin Nazis in 1933. She must have at least known the penalty would be severe. She may be humble today but what she did back then took a lot of courage.
This resolution was made possible by the initial ideas from Jeff Richards, Danielle Alderson, and Julia Nephew. Further work was done by Paula Laurita, Eileen M. Palmer, Mary Glendening, Rhonda K. Gould, Deb Sica, Erin Stalberg, Sandy Hirsh, and Shannon DeSantis Gile. Thanks to everyone for all their hard work on this resolution.
Dita Kraus is 90 years old and still lives in Israel. She just released a book with Feiwel & Friends called A Delayed Life: The True Story of the Librarian of Auschwitz. She is very much able to speak for herself and I would recommend watching her video testimonials:
Holly Eberle is the Youth Technology Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in northern Illinois and a member of the Intellectual Freedom Committee. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. Her passion for the intellectual freedom rights of youth began in kindergarten when her elementary school library pulled the Goosebumps series off the shelves. She also is interested in the technological realm of intellectual freedom and privacy issues. Outside of the library she is a metalhead and you may follow her on Instagram @doom_metal_librarian.
I have never read a book about such amazing strength. I wouldn’t have survived one day in those camps. I have such respect and empathy for the survivors and their families.