A Delayed Life is a new memoir by Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus, whose life was previously the subject of the novel The Librarian of Auschwitz. This memoir is only partly an account of her victimization by the Nazi régime, Kraus’s book offers a perspective on her long life, using the metaphor of incompleteness and delay. In her insightful and poignant introduction, she explains how she has never been able to fully experience a moment’s reality, instead distancing herself with the sense that every occurrence was merely “a kind of preface to the narrative.” A Delayed Life is both an examination of history and an exercise in severe introspection, leaving the reader grateful for Kraus’s strength in confronting her past, as well as for her ability to distill her thoughts in careful and rich prose.
The book is divided into sections corresponding to different eras in Kraus’s life. Her childhood in Czechoslovakia before the Nazi occupation was idyllic in comparison to the brutality which she would later suffer in Terezin, Auschwitz, and other forced labor camps, yet she is unstinting in describing the sadness of a childhood often characterized by helplessness and the incomprehension of adults. There is a psychoanalytic tone throughout the book, as Kraus struggles to make sense out of difficult memories and flawed family relationships. She also conveys her incomprehension at looming antisemitism, in the context of her family’s very secular identity, claiming that she first heard the word “Jew” only in 1938. Her ethnic identity had seemed a blank slate: “I was neither Catholic nor Protestant, nor anything else. I had never seen a chanukiah nor heard the words Pesach or Yom Kippur.”
Kraus recounts in unstinting detail her hellish time in Terezin/Theresienstadt, the allegedly model camp which the Nazis established in order to deceive the Red Cross, and in the children’s block of the Auschwitz extermination camp. The mere enumeration of facts is enough to evoke horror, but Kraus’s gifts as a writer allow readers to incorporate the human dimensions of the Shoah on a different level. She contrasts the heroism of the adult prisoners who mentored children whom they knew were doomed to die, with the almost disembodied cruelty of the camp guards. At one point, Kraus is awarded a privileged job sewing dolls for the guards’ children, because “it was convenient for them to save the expense and trouble of buying Christmas presents.” Kraus’s use of irony gives the impression that it was not a stylistic choice, but rather the only way to record the unbelievable.
After Kraus’s liberation she is faced with piecing together a broken life. Even her reunion with other survivors and her courtship by her future husband, Otto, are tinged with ambivalence. In accordance with the message of her introduction, unambiguous immersion in the moment is unavailable to her. Her post-war experiences seem “…peripheral, as if I could relate only to the edge, but not to the wound itself.” When she and her husband move to Israel and settle on a kibbutz, her gratitude is mixed with frustration at what she views as unfairness and bureaucratic incompetence in the community. It is notable that Kraus repeatedly reports discriminatory attitudes toward women, even within the aspiring egalitarianism of the kibbutz. She does find humor in kibbutz life, and her portraits of its characters are reminiscent of Sholom Aleichem sketches of the nineteenth-century shtetl.
Once in A Delayed Life, Kraus even steps outside her narrative voice to address the reader directly, acknowledging that it must seem implausible to have undergone what she chronicles without becoming “insane.” Kraus has no definitive explanation, but her gift with words has given structure to her survival and enabled her to ensure that the memory of the Shoah will not disappear. In a revealing moment, she captures the loss of one life in the camps, an elderly woman who fell from a Nazi transport truck: “As she was falling, her white hair spread around her head like a halo, and she seemed not to fall but to fly…for me, a girl of fourteen, the memory of the old, nameless woman has become the quintessence of the Shoah that was Auschwitz.”
A Delayed Life is highly recommended although readers should be aware that it contains scenes of graphic violence.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.