Tuesday, 21 April 2020

A Delayed Life by Dita Kraus

A Delayed Life by Dita Kraus
Published by Ebury Press on the 6th February 2020.

A Book with Vegetarian Characters

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The powerful, heart-breaking memoir of Dita Kraus, the real-life Librarian of Auschwitz

Born in Prague to a Jewish family in 1929, Dita Kraus has lived through the most turbulent decades of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Here, Dita writes with startling clarity on the horrors and joys of a life delayed by the Holocaust. From her earliest memories and childhood friendships in Prague before the war, to the Nazi-occupation that saw her and her family sent to the Jewish ghetto at TerezĂ­n, to the unimaginable fear and bravery of her imprisonment in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and life after liberation.

Dita writes unflinchingly about the harsh conditions of the camps and her role as librarian of the precious books that her fellow prisoners managed to smuggle past the guards. But she also looks beyond the Holocaust – to the life she rebuilt after the war: her marriage to fellow survivor Otto B Kraus, a new life in Israel and the happiness and heartbreaks of motherhood.

I should start this review by explaining that I haven't actually yet read The Librarian Of Auschwitz and chose to download my review copy of Dita Kraus' autobiography, A Delayed Life, because of her Czech nationality rather than to gain a greater understanding of the fictional novel. A Delayed Life takes readers from Kraus' very earliest memories as a toddler growing up in cosmopolitan Prague to pretty much the present day so covering approximately eighty years of her life. There is very much a sense of three parts to this story: before the war; the Nazi oppression; and after the war. I was fascinated by Kraus' explanations of the long-lasting effects of surviving the Holocaust on her own emotional outlook. She regrets never again being able to live in the moment because of so long spent trying to avoid the horror of the Right Now. I had not considered this aspect of what is obviously PTSD before.

Dita Kraus comes across as a particularly vivacious and lively girl who, under other circumstances, would no doubt have been the belle of the ball in her late teenage years and twenties. That she could maintain her spirit through so much violence and deprivation is certainly inspirational. A Delayed Life is written at a very personal level so I felt I could begin to have some understanding of Kraus' frustrations and anguish through the war years and beyond. Her life is one of dramatic changes - in the 1930s and then again in the post-war years when she and her new husband, Otto, grab the chance to escape communist Czechoslovakia and restart their lives on an Israeli kibbutz. I felt a certain unease at the descriptions of their bucolic kibbutz life because books such as My Name Is Adam by Elias Khoury and Occupied by Joss Sheldon have shown me what the Zionist dream will result in just a few decades later, however in the 1950s there is an uplifting sense of hope and community as people come from Jewish traditions all across the world to help build this new Israel. Kraus isn't completely suited to the communal life, but I loved how she makes her mark by training as the first (only) female cobbler!

Sadly Dita Kraus' later years are marred by tragedies within her own family and it seemed so unfair that this woman who had survived so much early on in her life should not be able to enjoy a happily ever after. A Delayed Life is frequently a harrowing read, but an important one especially as Europe intolerance begins to rise again. I think we all need to hear stories like this.

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Kyiv, Ukraine

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Books by Dita Kraus / Biography and memoir / Books from the Czech Republic

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