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dita kraus

'I have a number on my arm from Auschwitz - and people say it never happened?'

Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus has written a memoir about her time in Auschwitz.

BECAUSE AUSCHWITZ WAS liberated 75 years ago, there are very few survivors left to tell the world about what happened to them. 

But those that survive, like Dita Kraus (née Polach), see part of their life’s mission as spreading the word about the horrors of the Shoah. Now aged 90, Kraus has written a memoir of her time in the camps and beyond, called A Delayed Life. It comes after the publication of The Librarian of Auschwitz, a novel based on her story.

Kraus tells that it wasn’t her intention to write a memoir. “I never thought to write a book,” she says from her home in Israel, where she moved with her husband and children in 1949 to raise three children. “I just noted down events from my life. I wrote it in English because I wanted my children to read it and they know Hebrew and English.”

Born in Prague in 1929, Kraus grew up with her parents Hans and Elisabeth, who were secular Jews. In 1939, when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, they brought in laws that limited the freedom of Jewish people. Little by little, things were taken away.

The persecution increased until, in 1942, Kraus and her parents were deported to Ghetto Theresienstadt. They were later moved to Auschwitz, where her father died. Then she and her mother were moved to a forced labour camp in Germany. After that, they were sent to the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, where Kraus’s mother died.

After the war, Dita connected with fellow survivor Otto B Kraus, and they married. 

“By chance one of the Czech publishers of my husband’s books asked me, after he published some books written by my husband, he said ‘and you never wrote anything?’ I said ‘yes, I wrote episodes into a book’. He said: this can be combined into a book,” Kraus tells of how her memoir came to be.

She describes it as “a bit awkward because the writer in my family was my husband and not me”. But Kraus’s honest, intimate accounts of her life belie that fact. 

In the memoir, she depicts life in the camp in an unflinching way, describing the confined living space, the flea-ridden clothes, the murky watery soup, and the cruelty of the guards. She tells us about an interaction with Joseph Mengele, when he ordered that people undergo a selection process to see who would be fit for physical work. 

People have their heads shaved; they suffer the indignity of emptying their bowels in makeshift toilets; their bodies wear out from lack of food. Through it all, Dita Kraus, just a young teenager, watches on.

The Librarian of Auschwitz

Dita Older Dita Kraus

In 2012, Spanish author Antonio Iturbe published a novel inspired by Kraus’s experiences, called The Librarian of Auschwitz. It was a work of fiction based around the time that Kraus spent in the family camp in Auschwitz looking after a small collection of books.

“We became really good friends while we were exchanging emails, and I also met him in person in Prague,” says Kraus. “He said he would write a story about me but I never believed it, and so when he sent me the book in Spanish I didn’t know [what it said], but he also sent a synopsis that somebody wrote for him in very broken English, so I had an idea but I didn’t know the details.”

When she did get to read the book, after it was published in Czech, she was surprised by some of the details, such as how her fictional parents were depicted.

“My parents in the book are absolutely different to my parents,” she says. “I felt it was funny because the way my mother talks to me in the book, the ‘book mum’, she kind of corrects my behaviour and so on. That was so… I found it funny because those things never happened in reality. When I spoke to him about it he justified himself, he said ‘poetic reality’.”

“I think they can’t really be compared because what he wrote is a novel while mine is a personal document.”

As the librarian of Auschwitz, she cared for a small number of books in the camp. “It was a row of books, not more than 12 or 14 books and they were a random collection. They were books that were found in the luggage of the arriving prisoners,” explains Kraus. “In a library you have books for certain ages, travelogues and novels, you have literature for children and for youths. Here it was absolutely random – one was an atlas, one was a Russian grammar book, different things you know. But each of them was used and each of them helped to entertain the children in some way.”

When asks if the books were a symbol of freedom for her, the answer is stark.

“I couldn’t say. I was a child, I was 15, I had no opinion about the world. I had no knowledge about politics,” she says. “Also because I was deported at such a young age I didn’t have the horizons too, like an adult who could compare what is freedom and what is war.”

Was she able to understand what was happening when the Nazis began to persecute the Jews? “I knew and I saw what was happening to our friends and our family and to myself, but I didn’t understand why it was happening to the Jews only. I must confess I don’t understand to this day why – what sin have we committed that we have to be punished?”

Kraus says that before she and her parents were deported, her parents tried to emigrate.

“They wrote to all kinds of lands… but before they could decide, it was too late. The borders were closed and we could not leave any longer.”

Power of words

Readers of Kraus’s book have been sending her “very encouraging” mails, she says. “They tell me they didn’t know [about the Holocaust] – ‘I didn’t know about this and I’m sorry it happened’,” she says. She says she hopes that if they absorb the information, it may help to avoid another Holocaust.

She says those who criticise Holocaust memoirs are anti-semitic, and emotion fills her voice as she wonders how people could read about the concentration camps (“reading about babies being killed”), but still persist in disbelieving.

“I am speechless, I don’t know what to do,” she says of being faced with such denial. “I feel so hurt. I have still a number on my arm from Auschwitz – and people say it never happened? I just don’t know what to do because it is more than one can believe. I am lost when I am confronted with somebody’s denial of the Holocaust.”

Kraus says it is “good that people should read about what happened”.

She says that she wants people to understand that the rejection of other people, “people of other colour, of other faiths, to what terrible end it can lead”.

“And I think this is very important, that people should know we are all the same. We all love our children and we all want to do good and we all want to succeed in life. We have so much in common with people of all kinds and there is no difference in race and skin colour.”

Will she write more? “I don’t think so,” says Kraus. “Maybe one small episode, two short pages which I might send to someone or some newspaper. But I don’t have any other stories. I am not a writer. My husband is a writer.”

Instead, she sees herself as a painter – and she paints flowers, happy floral images that are far from those that filled her teenage years. Right now, she is happy in life.

“I do very well. I am still on my feet and I still can walk and swim and drive and read books, and visit my great-grandchildren in Jerusalem. It should last.”

She stays in touch with other Holocaust survivors, who live in countries like America and Australia, as well as two in particular who also live in Israel. 

“We are getting so rare that everybody has to as long as it is possible give talks and not let people forget,” she says.

Does she have a message for her readers?

“My message is only one: teach your children not to hate. Hatred is the cause of wars and discrimination and suffering of people.

“The message is always the same – please consider teaching your children and your children’s children not to hate.”

A Delayed Life by Dita Kraus is out now, published by Penguin.

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