Non­fic­tion

A Delayed Life: The True Sto­ry of the Librar­i­an of Auschwitz

  • Review
By – November 9, 2020

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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