This stunning novel of the Holocaust, from Spanish novelist and journalist Antonio Iturbe, is based on the true story of 14-year-old Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus who risked her life to protect a ragged assortment of books, hiding them in secret pockets in her smock, and circulating them to teachers giving forbidden lessons to the 500 children housed in the Block 31 "family camp" at Auschwitz in 1944. The "library"of eight books included "A Short History of the World" by H.G. Wells, a Russsian grammar, a book on analytical geometry, "The Count of Monte Cristo" in the original French.
Iturbe uses the present tense to give his story a vivid immediacy, opening with a surprise inspection during a lesson by the SS and the fearsome Dr. Josef Mengele and Dita, on impulse, flying from teacher to teacher, struggling to hold the books under her dress.
Iturbe seamlessly weaves his narrative using flashbacks to flesh out portraits of such central figures at the camp as Alfred Hirsch, who founded the school and died at the camp, and registrar Rudi Rosenberg, who escaped and tried to alert the world to the truth of what was happening in the camps.
Amidst the brutality, the death, the smell of burning flesh from the ovens, the constant hunger, the cold, the filthy conditions, the torment of lice and fleas and disease, the library of books keeps hope alive. In this radical coming of age, under the cruelest of conditions, Dita learns from Hirsch that the truly brave are the ones who know fear, and from elderly Dr. Morgenstern, that hate cannot triumph.
Iturbe is a wonderful writer: He describes brutal blond SS guard Elizabeth Volkenrath, a former hairdresser, as having "the appearance of someone who's been to an expensive salon and then rolled around in a barn." The broad sweep of the narrative includes the doomed romance of Rudi and Alice and SS guard Viktor Pestek's doomed mission to rescue a prisoner and her mother.
In researching his novel, Iturbe interviewed Dita Kraus, who showed him around her native Prague and wrote in a note on the book's first page, which includes her picture: "It is a story born both from my own experiences and the rich imagination of the author." The book's inside covers are aerial photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau with captioning by the CIA. At the end, the author includes notes about what became of the prisoners and guards at Auschwitz, including what really happened to Alfred Hirsch.