Book review: A Delayed Life

Death, destruction and, eventually, happiness


A Delayed Life by Dita Kraus (Ebury Press, £7.99)

In A Delayed Life, author Dita Kraus describes, in a remarkably matter-of-fact tone, her dramatic transition from a happy childhood in pre-war Prague to utter misery in the Nazi camps, followed by liberation and loss, then oppression in Communist Czechoslovakia, to back-breaking work in an early Israeli kibbutz. 

Yet she never lost her sunny schoolgirl personality and faced hardship head-on, however much it hurt. After all their belongings were taken from them, her family were sent to Theresienstadt, then Auschwitz — where her father died — then hard labour in Hamburg and, finally, Bergen-Belsen. Her mother died after the war. 

Despite having witnessed and experienced the most hideous times in human history, she describes lighter moments, too — in Auschwitz, she managed the Kinderblock, a child-care centre, which became a secret library. For this, Dita Kraus features as the heroine of a recent best-selling book, The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe. But, in her own book, she devotes only a few pages to this episode, dismissing her role as minor. She says the real heroes are the child-minders who went with the children to the gas chambers.

After a tough, gruesome liberation, Dita returned to Prague with enough experiences for a lifetime. She was 16. In 1947, overcoming endless bureaucracy, she married Otto Kraus, whom she had first met at Terezin and who also taught at the Kinderblock. He reclaimed his family’s old factory, published an acclaimed book and they had a son. 

But when her country fell to a Communist coup, Otto was blocked from publishing his next book and was ousted from his “capitalist” factory. They tried to emigrate to Israel but were frustrated by a property tax bill for the war years — relating to a factory stolen from them by the occupiers. 

They finally obtained permission to leave and, after a difficult journey to Israel, they ended up on a kibbutz, where she had two more children, cooked, sewed, took care of orphans, taught English and even learned to be a cobbler.

After seven years on kibbutz, the Krauses left for better-paid jobs, and to catch up on lost years. They visited Czechoslovakia in 1989 and again just after the Velvet Revolution had seen off the Communists. She attended an exhibition at Yad Vashem of children’s artwork from Theresienstadt, in which she saw some of her own drawings. She was invited to the Imperial War Museum in London, where, among hours of harrowing film taken by the British Army during liberation, she found pictures of herself. She also visited Hamburg to witness a Stolperstein memorial plaque installed in honour of her mother. 

Invited to Japan to teach about the Holocaust, Dita received a great welcome and loved teaching — “I became the voice of those children whose pictures remained the only proof they had lived”. But Dita still had not escaped torment. Her two eldest children had serious, long-term health problems and died, as has her husband. Nevertheless, at the age of 89, she writes: “it makes me happy that, despite Hitler’s efforts to exterminate us, there are now 14 Kraus descendants… I need not delay any more. I have caught up with my life.” 

Johnny Belknap is a writer, designer and musician

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