Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites

In December 1943, Dita Adlerova, 14, along with her parents and 5,000 other Jewish prisoners arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau from the Theresienstadt ghetto (also referred to as Terezín) in Czechoslovakia. Unlike most of the Jews who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, this transport arrived with the notation SB - Sonderbehandlung. No one really knew what was meant by special treatment, but they were put into one of nine separate camps in Birkenau, called BIIb, and referred to as the Theresienstadt Family Camp. These prisoners were allowed to keep their clothing and their hair wasn’t shaved, although living conditions were just a deplorable as elsewhere in Auschwitz.

Thanks for Fredy Hirsch, the prisoner in charge of the children, Dita becomes an assistant in Block 31, a barracks that has been converted into a space for children during the day so that their parents can work. It is also a place that houses a secret school which includes a library of eight books that have been smuggled in by other prisoners and are in various states of disrepair. Dita’s job is to care for the books every day - removing them from their hiding place, delivering them to the teachers, and carefully putting them back into their hiding place. Dita takes her job so seriously, that when a surprise inspection that includes Dr. Josef Mengele happens, she risks everything to hide the books under her smock. 

But later that day, Dita runs into Mengele again,and she believes that he seems to know that she was hiding something that morning. He tells her he will be watching her from now on. His threat informs Dita’s life in Auschwitz with additional fear from then on, yet it doesn’t stop her from continuing her job as the librarian. 

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a powerful novel with a brilliant blending of fact and fiction. It is told mostly in the present tense, and I think the writing style may remind you of The Book Thief, especially the voice of the omniscient narrator who knows what has happened as well as what will happen. And I have to be honest and say it is a difficult book to read at times, but then, so are all books about the Holocaust.

Several of the characters are based on real people. Most of the Nazis in charge of Auschwitz, like Josef Mengele, the Doctor of Death, and Rudolf Höss, the camp commandant. The main character, Dita Adlerova, reflects the experiences of the real librarian of Auschwitz, Dita Polach Kraus, whom Iturbe interviewed in Israel when he was researching this novel. Iturbe also includes the stories of Fredy Hirsch, Rudi Rosenberg, and SS First Officer Viktor Pestek. Hirsch and Rosenberg were prisoners in Auschwitz, while Pestek was a guard who fell in love with a young Jewish girl. Other characters in the novel are strictly fictional, but whether real or fictional, each one contributes to the overall picture that Iturbe draws of this section of Auschwitz, an anomaly in what was a place where most people were sent to be killed upon arrival. 

And Dita's story is certainly an exemplary one. In the midst of so much heartbreak and horror, Dita derives a real sense of strength and purpose as the librarian, coming up with ways to improve the delivery of the fragile books to teachers, and carefully repairing them each day when they are returned. And, with the help of Fredy Hirsch, her sense of purpose develops into a way that Dita is able to cope with her own overwhelming fear, learning to accept it as part of who she is, and by recognizing it, she is able to overcome it and go on despite everything.

Thus, Iturbe’s draws Dita as a study of courage in the face of fear, and it becomes all the more poignant and admirable as she faces the horrors of Auschwitz, and later Bergen-Belsen. And while the actual atrocities that were endemic in the Nazi’s concentration camps and their treatment of Jews are difficult to fully capture in words alone, readers should know that Iturbe doesn’t hold back, that some of what he writes is quite graphic. 

Though fear, hunger, cold, death, cruelty, and loss of loved ones are the daily experiences of Dita and the other prisoners in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, ultimately The Librarian of Auschwitz is a life-affirming novel that manages to end on a note of hope for the future.

A Teacher's Guide for The Librarian of Auschwitz is available from the publisher, Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher

Map of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) showing Theresienstadt Family Camp BIIb and Block 31 where the secret school was held

        

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Sunday Funnies #26: Archie Comics

I decided not to go to Comic Con this year, after standing on line to get in for almost 4 hours last year. But I’ve been thinking about comics this weekend anyway. I loved comics growing up and I like to feature some of the comics that were popular during the WWII. Comic are often such a measure of what is happening in the world.

And, sometimes, while reading a book for this blog, I come across things about WWII that I didn’t know and that take me by surprise. That’s exactly what happened while I was reading a mystery called The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines. On page 36, the protagonist, Iris Anderson, 15, is reading an Archie comic book. Archie in 1942? The same Archie Andrews I read all those years later?

Archie was indeed a war-time creation, and Iris Anderson was probably reading Archie Comics #1, dated Winter 1942, on sale November 15, 1942, cost 10¢. But teenaged Archie’s first appearance, along with Jughead Jones and Betty Cooper, was actually a year earlier, in Pep Comics #22, dated Dec. 1941. It was a six page spread and introduced Archie as “America’s newest boyfriend.” 



Archie lived in Riverdale, along with his parents Mary and Fred Andrews, and attended Riverdale High School. Archie’s infamous jalopy was introduced in Pep Comics #25, dated March 1942 and the very rich Veronica Lodge, middle-class Betty Cooper’s rival for Archie’s affections, was introduced in Pep Comics #26, dated April 1942. More characters were added over the first year, including Mr. Weatherbee, the school principal. Mr. Lodge, who raison d’être was to keep Archie and Veronica apart, and Archie’s other friend, Reggie Mantle. It is interesting that there is no mention of the Archie story in either of these Pep Comics.



In 1942, with most of the characters in place, Archie got his own comic book, in which he was now billed as “The Mirth of a Nation.” The overall humor in Archie’s adventures is pretty much the same in these early comics and in the ones I read. And although he looked like a total doofus in the early Pep Comics and the first Archie Comics, his popularity continued to grow and his looks mellowed out somewhat. 

Oddly, even though the Pep Comics of the early 1940s had superheroes fighting Nazis, Archie stories were apolitical. It wasn’t until he had his own comic that the war began to figure into some, though not many, of the stories. The first one I found is called “Pancakes in a Blackout.” When his parents go out for the evening, Archie decides to make himself a nice stack of pancakes, but then the air raid siren sounds and he has every light in the house on. Well, see for yourself:
Archie has changed and evolved over time, but it's been fun revisiting those early days of Archie and the gang, and if you are like me, right about now you have "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies running through your head. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz

Inspired by her hero Marina Raskova, Valka Koroleva, 18, wants nothing more than to fly for her country, the Soviet Union. Already a pilot, Valka’s first attempts to join the Red Army Air Force or VVS (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily) are initially turned down, but by September 1941, things have changed and they put out a call for qualified female pilots. 

And Valka is beside herself to learn that Marina Raskova will be in charge of the women pilots, and to be accepted into the initial training program Aviation Group 122 along with her cousin Iskra Koroleva, 21. 

Meanwhile, Valka’s childhood friend Pasha Danilin, 17, has been conscripted and is serving as a radioman in the Red Army. As enthusiastic as Valka is fight the fascists, Pasha is just the opposite. A sensitive person, who hears the sounds of the world in different colors, Pasha is just not cut out for war.

Valka’s cousin Iskra, with whom she is very close, is the daughter of “wreckers,” who were accused of sabotaging the 1937 census. They were arrested and imprisoned, and this fact follows and causes problems for Iskra, even in the VVS.  

The majority of the novel is focused on pilot Valka and navigator Iskra’s experiences on the ground and in the air, with a great deal of attention given to the sexism that the women pilots had to deal with while proving themselves to excellent aviators and brave fighters. Not that dropping bombs on enemies is done easily - Valka and Iskra are fully aware that they are taking lives.

Most of the action is told through an exchange of letters between Valka and Pasha, which also allows for orienting the reader timewise. Not only does the reader get a clear picture of what is going on, but they also get a lot of factual background information. This is one of those books that prompted me to look up people, places, and events that are included, to find out more. 

Katz also develops the feelings that Pasha and Valka have for each other, taking them from friendship to a deeper love. I hate to use the word romance here as some have,  because that might lead some readers to think this is a romance novel, when in reality it is excellent historical fiction with a romantic sub-story.

Among the Red Stars is a nice blend of fiction and reality. Through Valka and Iskra, Katz  traces the difficulties faced in creating the training Aviation Group 122 that later became the three regiments - the 586th, the 587th, and the 588th. Mixed among her fictional characters are some real heroic women aviators who fought and even lost their lives in WWII. And Katz does not hold back on some of her descriptions of the fighting - air and ground. 

Among the Red Stars is an exciting debut novel, occasionally bogged down by the descriptions, but otherwise very well worth reading, especially if you like historical fiction, or have an interest in WWII history, women’s history, aviation. Katz includes more information about Aviation Group 122 and the fate of some of the Russian women who flew in WWII.

FYI: the success of the Russian women aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, in which Valka and Iskra serve, earned them the name Nachthexen or Night Witches by the Germans.  

Pair this with Flygirl by Sherrie L. Smith and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein for an interesting comparison of fictional representations of female pilot experiences in WWII. 

For anyone interested in more information about the women who flew for the Soviet Union in WWII, these two were recommended by Gwen Katz, author of Among the Red Stars. They are A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in WWII by Anne Noggle, published by Texas A&M University Press, 1994, 2007; and Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat by Reina Pennington, University Press of Kansas, 2007. 

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was a ARC provided by the author


This is the kind of plane the 588th flew in the nightly bombings.
It was made of canvas and wood
Source: By Douzeff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0