Briefly noted: ‘A Delayed Life: The true story of the Librarian of Auschwitz’ by Dita Kraus

After reading Antonio Iturbe’s The Librarian of Auschwitz, the well-researched and agonizing novel based on the true story of Dita Kraus, I was happy to discover that Dita Kraus is still with us, apparently as sharp and feisty as ever at 92.

She has her own website here where she sells her delicate paintings of flowers, a few of the books mentioned in Iturbe’s novel, and provides a link to her own memoir A Delayed Life: The true story of the Librarian of Auschwitz which was published in 2020.

Look at the book with Amazon’s look inside feature, and you’ll find some amazing writing, pragmatic, incisive, and bluntly honest, as this excerpt shows:

From the Publisher

The powerful, heart-breaking memoir of Dita Kraus, THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ

Dita Kraus was born in Prague in 1929 – in her powerful new memoir she writes about her childhood before the war and then during the Nazi-occupation that saw her and her family sent to the Jewish ghetto at Terezín and from there to Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen.

Dita writes powerfully and unflinchingly about the harsh conditions of the camps and her role as librarian of the precious books the prisoners had managed to smuggle past the guards. She also writes about the liberation of the camps and her chance meeting with fellow survivor Otto B Kraus after the war.

Part of Dita’s story was told in fictional form in the Sunday Times bestseller THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ by Antonio Iturbe.

I am so impressed with this fine lady, that I ordered the book immediately. Perhaps it will fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about her. If I had her persistence and bravery and dedication, I could move mountains–that’s pretty much what she did in the family unit school at Auschwitz-Birkenau when she was fourteen years old in this unholy place:


If the U.S. were overrun by a repressive regime, would we resist and hide targeted groups?

As I read Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew and Kirstin Hannah’s The Nightingale, I was impressed by the risks taken by people who hid Jews and others and/or led them across borders and/or blew up bridges, death trains, and other Nazi facilities.

Naturally, these novels are inspired by a minority of the people living in occupied countries. Even so, the dedication of those “fighting” or fighting against the Nazis is impressive. I couldn’t help but wonder if the U.S. would have such dedicated resistance fighters if it were overrun.

Yes and no, I suppose.

Our gun ownership levels are the highest per capita in the world, so we would have the weapons necessary for resistance. Our dedication–as a nation–for helping minority races has not been very good and is definately under debate now with, I think, a potential for positive change. Yet, if we were conquered by a Nazi Germany-style invader, would we shield, say, Jews, African Americans, American Indians, and other groups?

The brutality of the situation might inspire us to oppose it even though under peacetime, we aren’t doing a lot to help those groups now. When we turned away Jews fleeing occupied Europe during World War II, we didn’t know how bad conditions were becoming. But we did know they were bad. We were not unaware of vandalism against Jews or evem about Kristallnacht in 1938.

Many people are saying that while the Internet connects lots of people, it allows them to stay at arms’s length from each other. (The typical cartoon shows groups of people at dinner tables with no communication amongst them because everyone is texting.) So, would we keep ourselves at arm’s length from those groups an invader might repress?

I hope not, but I suspect we would react like the people who inspired The World That We Knew and The Nightengale. Those actively fighting the invader (one way or another) would be in the minority just as they were in occupied WWII countries.

So many people think that if they keep quiet, things will get better. If we’re conquered and believe keeping quiet works best, we haven’t learned anything from history.


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Might and Fog

Neither my wife nor I remember ever hearing the German phrase “Nacht und Nebel” (“Night and Fog”) in our World War II history classes. And yet, this directive from Hitler was brought up at the Nuremberg Trials, so it was certainly no secret at the end of the war, nor by the time our history classes were put together some twenty to thirty years later.

Basically, Nacht und Nebel was a policty of Hitler’s that broke the rules of the Geneva Convention in which those working against the Reich, most often in occupied countries, were arrested and subsequently put in camps or executed without any information about their fate sent to family or others. It was as though they never existed–they had been, as some novels put it–“disappeared.” Often the letters NN would be shown on any paperwork.

The phrase been around for a long time before Hitler, and especially Himmler used it and made it a part of the German war machine’s policy. NN not only stood for Nacht und Nebel but also for “nullus nomen” (without name) which indicates that such people were removed from the face of the earth physically and in every other way possible.

As I re-read Pam Jenoff’s novel The Lost Girls of Paris, about British agents sent to occupied France to cause trouble and send information back to Britain via wireless, I am noticing this phrase more than I did the first time through the book. I find it haunting and so unfortunately apt considering the fears and dangers of night and fog.

I generally do not like the tactics of the FBI, NSA, and CIA because we keep seeing evidence and innuendo about their spying in all the wrong places. Before all that was known, I’d always thought I’d make a reasonably good CIA agent. And yet I wonder if I ever would have had the grit and courage to do what the SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents did during World War II. Most of them didn’t last very long before they were caught.

I wonder about that, so perhaps that’s why NN bothers me in addition to the fact it “broke the rules of war.” Before I was conscious of the Night and Fog directives, I liked fog, probably because I saw so much of it as a child in San Francisco. Fog was part of the romance of San Francisco (as Tony Bennett sang in his famous song, The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care). But now, I cannot get the Nazi practice of torturing and killing agents–or suspected agents–out of my mind.

Partly, that’s because I think it still happens in unexpected places. And from neo-Nazi regimes and groups what still prescribe the old ways.


What does “Save Your Cans” mean?

When I saw this 1940 poster drawn by McClelland Barclay in support of the war effort, my first thought was “Why did they want people to save toilets? Were they re-used in barracks?”

The cans rolling out of a machine gun like spent shell casings, while probably not an accurate portrayal of how the cans were used, pretty much dimisses the toilet idea.

I’m a fan of old posters, partly due to their art work and partly due to their protrayal of the culture of another era.

According to The Price of Freedom: Americans at War website, “Posters during World War II were designed to instill in the people a positive outlook, a sense of patriotism and confidence. They linked the war in trenches with the war at home. From a practical point, they were used to encourage all Americans to help with the war effort. The posters called upon every man, woman, and child to endure the personal sacrifice and domestic adjustments to further the national agenda. They encouraged rationing, conservation and sacrifice.”

These posters, available on Amazon, show that we were a very different nation in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor:

If I were a history teacher, I would show these in class, not as propaganda, but as a window into the past that would–I would think–help start some great discussions.


At Sea by [Malcolm R. Campbell]I had the look and feel of such posters in mind when I created the cover art for my Vietnam War novel “At Sea.” I took the cover photograph with a 35mm camera while stationed on the USS Ranger (CVA-61) inthe Gulf of Tonkin. I wanted to show a typical flightdeck scene.

Briefly Noted: ‘The World That We Knew’ by Alice Hoffman

I reviewed The Dovekeepers which was extraordinary. The World That We Knew is also extraordinary, but it’s well beyond my poor powers to review.

It’s a breath of fresh air at a time when for reasons I cannot comprehend anti-Semitism is rearing its polluted self around the world along with the equally bankrupt white supremacists. And then, my generation was born in the shadow of World War II and that’s had a life-long effect on us.

Among other things, the sins of the world–from Nazi Germany to the U.S. and other countries who wouldn’t accept Jewish refugees–are still strongly on my mind. So, this novel stops the world of today and takes me back into the horrors suffered by the Jews in Germany, France and elsewhere. Hoffman’s novel is tantamount to an immersion in a history we cannot bear.

So, I’m too biased about the subject matter to speak objectively about The World That We Knew.  I think it is perfect, complete (as is typical of Hoffman in The Dovekeepers) with a blend of brutal facts, magical realism, and characters we care too much about before they are gone. There was love here, too, in spite of the atrocities surrounding the characters.

Perhaps that love was enough, a brief flash of divine light above misbegotten times, places, and unspeakble crimes.


Review: ‘ The Lost Girls of Paris’ by Pam Jenoff

The Lost Girls of ParisThe Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jenoff has written a compelling novel about female British agents serving in occupied France during World War II. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking novel since we learn early on that the odds are against many of the agents lasting long in the field before they’re captured and executed.

The novel is easy to follow since it focuses three characters, albeit with a good supporting cast: Eleanor, who works for the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) and champions and then trains and manages female agents in the field; Marie, whom Eleanor recruits due her flawless French; and Grace, who finds an abandoned suitcase in a New York train station after the war and becomes interested in a packet of the agents’ pictures.

The novel moves well, giving readers a sense of what it might have been like for these women to suddenly leave the country without telling anyone where they were going and, after arduous training, finding themselves in harm’s way. Fans of black ops novels might wish that more of the novel concentrated on the field work itself rather than the worries and intrigues at SOE headquarters. However, the girls’ work in the field is well researched and authentic.

The problematic character in the novel is Grace. After stumbling upon the pictures, she feels compelled to learn more about the SOE, Eleanor, and the girls in the packet of photographs. While Grace is a realistic character, inserting her life and her problems into this story takes away from the primary focus of the novel. She is more or less a device the author has used to help convey the story to the readers. While Grace “works” as a character, the novel might well have been stronger if she hadn’t been included.

Taking the story as it is with Grace in the mix, the material is well presented and interesting. Goodness knows the story in “real life” could have happened this way with an unconnected person stumbling upon it and trying to learn more. That said, the novel is well worth the reader’s time.

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Review: ‘Making Bombs for Hitler’ by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Making Bombs for HitlerMaking Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ukrainian Canadian author Marsha Skrypuch writes–as one interview said–“War Fiction: Writing the stories that haven’t been told.” She writes about genocide and displaced persons with an eye toward well-researched historical detail often given a personal touch through interviews with survivors who lived through the very stories her fiction brings to readers who often begin each book with little or no knowledge about the stories that have been covered up, overlooked, or allowed to fall through the cracks of our baseline knowledge about man’s inhumanity to man because fictional and historical accounts often focus on politics and battles rather than on those who suffered.

In “Making Bombs for Hitler,” Skrypuch–author of twenty books for young people–focuses on the Nazi practice of rounding up Polish, Ukrainian and other children and using them as slave labor in work camps on behalf of the Reich. Those who were too young or too infirm to be productive were eliminated. Some were drained of blood that was sent to the front for use by wounded German soldiers. Others, like the novel’s protagonist, Lida, were forced into camp jobs, rented out to local farmers and others, or pressed into factory work.

While Lida is a strong character, she is a child as are the others in her cold barracks room. So, young readers will be able to identify with her fears and concerns, including her worry about the fate of her younger sister who was taken somewhere else. Those sent to the bomb making factory are caught between their will to survive and the morality of making weapons for the Nazi war machine. It’s difficult to read this without wondering “As a twelve-year-old child, what would I do under similar circumstances?”

One strength of the book is the way in which Skrypuch portrays the bonding on the characters under deplorable conditions. They come together out of an inner strength much stronger than a simple will to survive, but out of a heartfelt and very human need to help each other. This is a heroic story that will stay with its readers long after the last page has been turned.

I have read most, if not all of Skrypuch’s novels because all of them are strong, well written and dear.

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Review: ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys, (Philomel Books: February 2016), 400pp, young adult

Between January and May, 1945, Germany evacuated two million people from the advancing Soviet army in the Polish and East Prussian corridors via Operation Hannibal, the largest sea evacuation in modern history. Over 25,000 of them died in the Baltic Sea when 158 of the estimated one thousand merchant vessels were lost, many to enemy fire.

Among the lost were 9,400 of the German, East Prussian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish refugees on board the Wilhelm Gustloff that was sunk at 9:15 p.m. January 30th by three torpedoes from Soviet Submarine S-13 at 55°04′22″N 17°25′17″E, nineteen miles off the Polish shore.

Ruta Sepetys’ superb young adult novel traces the flight of Joana (Lithuanian), Florian (Prussian), Emilia (Polish) and Alfred (German) from the advancing Soviet army. Alfred is a sailor sent to the port of Gotenhafen for duty on board the Wilhelm Gustloff to help evacuate those escaping from the Soviet advance. Joana, Florian, and Emilia have a more difficult trek to Gotenhafen because they are also running from the German army.

The story is told in one-to-three-page chapters from the viewpoints of the four major characters. By the end of the novel, readers know each of these characters like family for they will have heard an unforgettable story of brutality, death, guilt, fate, shame and fear from every angle that matters.

Joana is a compassionate nurse, Emilia is a pregnant teenager, Florian is a young man with secrets, and Alfred wants to receive a medal for small, self-important deeds. And then there are Eva, who is tall and gruff; Heinz, a cobbler who knows people by their shoes; Ingrid, a blind girl who sees better than many, and the other seemingly doomed but hopeful souls along the way.

As they walk through the snow, Joana thinks: We trudged farther down the narrow road. Fifteen refugees. The sun had finally surrendered, and the temperature followed. A blind girl ahead of me, Ingrid, held a rope tethered to a horse-drawn cart. I had my sight, but we shared a handicap: we both walked into a dark corridor of combat, with no view of what lay ahead. Perhaps her lost vision was a gift. The blind girl could hear and smell things the rest of us couldn’t.

Sepetys’ great success with this novel comes from many factors over and above her research. The story, including the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, is told in pointed, straightforward, often graphic language with well-chosen details and no authorial editorializing or sentimentality. If the refugees reach the ships in Gotenhafen, they may not be given a boarding pass: the Germans can easily find reasons for and against each of the characters. And, the subplot of secrets ultimately linking Joana, Florian and Alfred adds tension.

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect story about the tragedy of civilians in wartime or a better historical introduction to the plight of the Lithuanian, Prussian, Polish and German refugees caught between the opposing, but equally brutal World War II regimes of Hitler and Stalin.

Salt to the Sea is the novel no reader will forget.


Novelist Returns to Nonfiction with Patton’s Oracle Memoir

authcoverphoto (2)Today’s guest post is by Robert Hays (“Blood on the Roses,” “The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris”) who returns to his nonfiction roots with Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him. Since my writing career also began, like my father’s and Robert Hays’, in journalism, I wondered how Robert handled the move from fiction to nonfiction for this book.

Returning to Nonfiction

After four novels, I returned to non-fiction for my new book, Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him. I love writing fiction—the freedom to create settings and characters, the magic of working with different plots, the fun of trying ideas just to see if they work—but I also find great satisfaction in non-fiction. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a journalist. I loved newspaper reporting and the prospect of offering readers factual information that I consider interesting and important never wears thin.

Oracle cover 001 (2)What’s new for me in Patton’s Oracle is the addition of subjective material to the mix. The book is a biographical memoir, my effort to recount a marvelous four years of friendship and work with Oscar Koch, an unsung hero of World War II who became my personal hero as well.

Oscar Koch was a brilliant intelligence officer who deserves great credit for his behind-the-scenes role in the success of his celebrated commander, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. My military service had been two years as a draftee enlisted man and I had just turned 31 when I met Gen. Koch, who besides having a distinguished military career of almost forty years was well beyond twice my age. Surely the likelihood of us finding things in common was slight. But we live in a world of chance and in this case the unlikely came to pass.

I discovered the general to be a modest, scholarly and charming man. He found no glory in war, and sought none for himself. He was not enthusiastic when I asked to make him the subject of a personality profile article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I believe he consented principally as a favor to me. He was pleased with the article, though, and invited me to collaborate with him on a book that had become his final goal in life.

kochGen. Koch was a joy to work with. His book quickly became almost as important to me as it was to him. But shortly after we began, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. From that point forward I knew this was a race against time. We finished the book, G-2: Intelligence for Patton, but Oscar Koch did not survive to see it published. It came out in 1971 and still is in print.

As I summarized this experience in Patton’s Oracle: “I was granted only four years to share life with the general, a period that was far too short. In the beginning he lifted my spirits as we joined in a common purpose. In the end, I endured the anguish of watching an insidious cancer purloin the life from his body even though he never would surrender his gallant spirit. But what a remarkable four years it was, how grateful I am to have had that privilege.”

Patton’s Oracle is my tenth book. But it is the one I’ve wanted for decades to write, timid that I might not do justice to the subject. Even though the words are my own, there are passages that bring tears to my eyes. And of the ten, it is the book that is dearest to my heart.

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