The Children’s Block by Otto B Kraus

Today I hand the blog over to Mandie for a review of The Children’s Block by Otto B Kraus. Mandie has long been a lover of historical literature so was thrilled to be given the chance to read the book courtesy of TBConFacebook and publisher Ebury Press. Here’s what it’s all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy

About the Book

‘We lived on a bunk built for four but in times of overcrowding, it slept seven and at times even eight. There was so little space on the berth that when one of us wanted to ease his hip, we all had to turn in a tangle of legs and chests and hollow bellies as if we were one many-limbed creature, a Hindu god or a centipede. We grow intimate not only in body but also in mind because we knew that though we were not born of one womb, we would certainly die together.’

Alex Ehren is a poet, a prisoner and a teacher in block 31 in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the children’s block. He spends his days trying to survive while illegally giving lessons to his young charges while shielding them as best he can from the impossible horrors of the camp. But trying to teach the children is not the only illicit activity that Alex is involved in. Alex is keeping a diary…

Originally published as THE PAINTED WALL, Otto Kraus’s autobiographical novel, tells the true story of 500 Jewish children who lived in the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau between September 1943 and June 1944.

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Mandie’s Thoughts

Everybody comes across that book that has them wanting to drop everything and read. For me, right now this is that book. Earlier this year I read a book that was based on the life of Otto’s wife when she was an inmate in the Children’s block at Auschwitz. When I found out that Otto had himself written a book based on his experiences at the Camp and that it was being translated into English, I was determined that I was going to read it. From the first page I found that I struggled to put the book down. With each page I was drawn into the world that they endured never knowing if each day was going to be their last.

Although this is technically a work of fiction in as much as many of the characters in it are not real, there are many that were and that is what gives the book a true sense of time and place. What strikes you throughout the book is that despite the horrors that they are clearly living through, the one thing they all cling to is hope. They had to believe that there would be an end to what they were enduring and so for that reason they try to give the children a routine and shield them from the worst of what is going on around them. This book is by no means an easy read but it is a compelling one that gives the reader an insight to the conditions and experiences of the extermination camps of the Second World War. The fact that anyone got out alive is a testament to the determination of spirit of the thousands of Jews that were interred there for no other reason than their faith.

In telling his story and that of many others like him Otto has not shied away from any of the humiliation and suffering, yet he also tells of the friendships that formed between the camp inmates and the blossoming relationships that had to be conducted in secret.

The introduction at the beginning of the book by his wife Dita Krauss explains how the book came about and how at times it became too much as he remembered the events and struggled to put them on paper. You can sense how proud she is that 19 years after his death his words are finally being given a wider audience. We can never undo the past no matter how much we would sometimes like to, it is thanks to Otto and others like him who survived and finally found the courage to tell their story that we can maybe learn from it.

About the Author

Otto B Kraus was born 1st September 1921 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He and his family were deported in May 1942 to Ghetto Terezin and from there to Auschwitz where Otto became one of the children’s counsellors on the Kinderblock. Their camp was liquidated after six months. The able-bodied inmates were selected by the notorious Dr Mengele and sent to forced labour in Germany, the rest – more than 7000 people including mothers with young children, the weak and the elderly – were killed in the gas chambers. Otto was among the 1000 men sent to the concentration camp Schwarzheide-Sachsenhausen in Germany.

After the war, Otto returned to Prague where he learned that neither his parents, nor his brother had survived. He enrolled at the university to study Literature, Philosophy, English and Spanish. He received a modest grant and started to rebuild his life. He met Dita by chance and remembered her as one of the youths on the Kinderblock in Auschwitz and they became friends. They were married in 1947 and in 1949 they emigrated to Israel where they lived at first in a kibbutz and later moved to the Youth Village Hadassim where Otto taught English. Dita and Otto raised two sons and a daughter. Otto died on the 5th October 2000, at home, surrounded by his family.