Dita Polachova was raised in a loving home in Prague, the only child of book-loving parents, who filled their shelves with German, Czech and French books. Little did she know that by the age of 14 her life would be saved by a dozen tattered books which comprised possibly the smallest library in the world, in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Now 88, Dita has lived in Israel for nearly seventy years. Conscious of the dwindling number of survivors able to give testimony, my sister, two children and two nephews joined me to hear her unbelievable story when I visited her in Netanya on a Saturday evening. A little alarmed initially by the big group, she welcomed us warmly into the quaint book-lined living room of her apartment.
She told us of the carefree childhood she’d had in a secular home. Until she was eight she didn’t even know she was Jewish. “When I was in second grade, I found a piece of paper on my desk with the words, ‘You are a Jew’. I went home and asked: ‘Mum, what is a Jew?’ She explained that people have different religions, Christians, Protestants and Jews in Czechoslovakia. I said: ‘And we are Jews?’ The answer was a simple ‘yes’.”
Her blissful childhood ended abruptly before she turned ten. In March 1939 the Nazis invaded Prague and started restricting the lives of Jews. Within a month her lawyer father lost his job and the family were evicted by Germans, who demanded the flat for themselves.
By 1941 they were evicted again from the rented flat where they lived with her grandparents. By now they were squashed into a room in an apartment shared by another family in the part of the city which in the past had been the Jewish ghetto.
In November 1942, thirteen-year-old Dita and her parents were sent to the Terezin ghetto, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1943.
Dita and her mother were housed in one of the women’s barracks at Auschwitz. The camp, called Family Camp BIIb, was built as part of a pretence that Auschwitz was not an extermination camp. It contained a children’s block — block 31 — overseen by the notorious “Angel of Death”, Dr Mengele.
The children’s block was run by a young, charismatic Zionist called Fredy Hirsch. He’d had the courage to suggest to the camp commander that one block be allocated as a day care place for the children, so they wouldn’t be in the way of the working prisoners.
“While the adult prisoners had to stand in formation in front of the blocks twice a day in rain or freezing cold, the children had the advantage of being counted inside the Kinderblock,” explains Dita. “But in the late afternoon each of them had to go back to their bunks in the women’s and men’s blocks.”
Fredy, then aged 27, was an inspirational educator who created a small oasis of relative normality within the death camp. Dita had known him from her childhood in Prague, where he was her sports instructor. She had met him again in the Terezin Ghetto, where he was running the department for youths and children at the Jewish ghetto administration.
Although prisoners were only considered children until the age of 14, Fredy succeeded in getting those between the age of 14-16 designated as “assistants”, doing all types of work from sweeping the floor or helping with the distribution of the daily soup.
At 14, Dita and another boy became the block’s librarian, entrusted to look after a few random books found among the luggage of the arrivals in Auschwitz.
The only title Dita can remember is A Short History of the World, by HG Wells, in Czech. Her friend, Auschwitz survivor Ruth Bondy, who recently passed away, also remembered a geographical atlas and something by Sigmund Freud. Another survivor friend, Eva Merova, says there was a book of short stories by Czech writer Karel Capek. Educators would borrow books to teach the alphabet to the younger children. “As there were no pencils or papers to make notes I had to remember who took what at the end of each day.”
Life in the Kinderblock didn’t save the children from being murdered. The first transport from Terezin to the family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau arrived in September 1943. “Each transport was allocated six months to live. After the September transport was exterminated in March, it was clear that the December transport, [which included Dita and her mother], would be sent to the gas chambers in June.”
The sudden death of her mentor Fredy in March 1944 was traumatic for the children. Informed of the impending mass murder on March 8 1944, Fredy was asked to lead an uprising. Shortly after, he was found in a coma from an overdose of sleeping pills. Dita learned much later that Jewish doctors, worried about his safety, had drugged him to avoid conflict, but misjudged the dose.
“The educators in the Kinderblock were the greatest heroes of all,” she adds. “They knew they would die, yet dedicated themselves to the children, to make their last weeks as pleasant as they could.”
Dita’s father Hans died of starvation at the camp aged 44. In July 1944, Dita and her mother were among 1000 women sent by Mengele to a work camp in Hamburg. From there she was sent to Bergen-Belsen. “Even without gas chambers, the camp was a horrific killing machine, where the starving prisoners died by the thousands.”
The British troops who liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 confronted piles of dead and rotting corpses and thousands of sick and starving prisoners. Dita had her freedom, but she caught the deadly typhus disease, rife amongst survivors.
While waiting for the quarantine to be lifted so they could return to Prague, Dita’s mother became ill on June 27 1945. She died two days later, leaving her daughter an orphan, a few weeks short of her sixteenth birthday.
Dita returned to Prague alone. “I had no home. All I had were a few pieces of clothing tied in a blanket and a few packets of cigarettes. I was almost the only survivor of my family.”
How does she explain her survival for two and a half years in the ghetto, concentration and extermination camps? “Perhaps an initial good constitution and luck, luck and, again, luck.”
Just a few weeks after her return to the city, Dita met her future husband Otto Kraus, as she stood in line to get her ID card. She recognised him as one of the instructors from the children’s block but they had never spoken before.
In the following months Dita found a home with her friend Margit in the spa town of Tepice. Otto wrote to her every day. A year after they had first bumped into each other he said: “Why don’t you come to Prague? I can’t love you from a distance.” They married in 1947.
In 1949 they moved to Israel with their young son and other survivor friends. They lived in Kibbutz Givat Chaim, near Hadera, where Otto was an English teacher and Dita worked in the shoe-repair shop. Later Dita also became an English teacher and they taught at the Hadassim school, east of Netanya, founded in 1947 for European Jewish refugee children.
The love of books was a joint passion in their lives. Otto himself was a writer. One of his books, The Painted Wall, centres around his own experience as one of the instructors in the children’s block at Auschwitz. Otto passed away in 2000.
Still an avid reader, Dita’s home is full of books. Her favourite authors are Patrick White, Jonathan Franzen and classic British writers such as Hardy and Thackeray. She also likes works by Israeli contemporary authors Meir Shalev and David Grossman.
She has featured in books herself. Alberto Manguel mentioned her “clandestine children’s library” in his book about the great libraries of the world. This piqued the interest of Spanish writer Antonio Iturbe who wrote The Librarian of Auschwitz, a semi-fictionalised version of Dita’s story, based on many conversations. An English translation is now available, published a few months ago.
It’s been nearly seventy-five years since Dita’s number 73305 was tattooed on her arm in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The digits may have faded but the memories have not. She pulls up her sleeve to show us the faded digits, turning to the children, instructing them to share her story with others.
“There are many people today who deny these things ever happened. Don’t let yourself be influenced by hate mongers, always check facts and form your own opinion.”
The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe is published by Henry Holt