Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Delayed Life

The True Story of the Librarian of Auschwitz

Dita Kraus; read by Patience Tomlinson

Macmillan Audio

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

INTRODUCTION

Why Did I Call It a Delayed Life?


My life is not real life. It is something before the beginning of “real life,” a kind of preface to the narrative. It’s not yet what counts, merely a rehearsal. And someone is watching from behind, or perhaps from above, and passing judgment. There is a being that controls and judges my behavior. Perhaps it is not out there but inside me. Could it be my mother? Or my grandmother? Or something more internal … my id? I have no idea. But it is constantly present, holding an invisible mirror in front of me.

I can feel its approval or disapproval, the latter making me squirm inwardly, trying to suppress the nagging conscience or finding excuses for myself, although the negative feeling is extremely tenacious and cannot be shooed away. I make an effort to find reasons for having done or said what my controller finds unsatisfactory, but at the same time I know that I am only trying to justify my wrongdoing.

I don’t yet know how this connects to me perceiving my life as being delayed. For as long as I can remember, I have been more focused on tomorrow than aware about what I am experiencing at that particular moment. Even now, when I am at a concert, my thoughts are on the return journey and on tomorrow’s schedule and not on the music I came to listen to. When I eat, my mind is on washing the dishes, and when I lie down, I’m already planning what I must do when I get up. It’s never on the here and now, and I sense that I’m missing the enjoyment of the present. There is too much control: never letting go, never totally relaxing. There’s always the presence of the Watcher, forever passing judgment.

It must have been at a very early age that I began to delay my life. It was a way of indefinite postponement, a deferred satisfaction. How did I delay? I accepted the bitter fact that I would not get what I wanted, certainly not soon and probably never. I told myself I must wait patiently; perhaps fulfillment would come later. Or never. I thought that maybe if I put my hope on hold and didn’t think about it, one day it may turn out right.

In some deep place, I kept believing that the circle would come around and things would rearrange themselves in their proper sequence, that everything would resume its normal place. I just had to delay.

But in a strange way, these delayed passages—these empty spaces—have created gaps, so that the mosaic of my life has spots where the picture is left unfinished.

There are so many of these gaps. How shall I fill them? Time is running out; who knows how long I have left to live. Already I am the grandmother of four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Most of the people from my earlier years are no longer alive and cannot answer my questions. I shall try to gather the fragments and write them down; perhaps a blueprint will emerge that might fill the blank spaces on the mosaic.…


CHAPTER ONE

Childhood


My earliest recollections emerge from the empty nothingness, which precedes conscious memory. They resemble a picture flickering for an instant on the screen and disappearing again into darkness. Yet each of these fleeting pictures is suffused with emotion.

I have been placed on the baby scale on the table covered with a white oilcloth, in the doctor’s office. I am naked, and the metal is hard and cold on my back. I may be two or two and a half years old. Mother and the doctor in a white coat are standing over me. I am not frightened, because they smile.

Dr. Desensy-Bill was our pediatrician. I remember later visits, when she put her palm on my chest, tapped it with her middle finger, and then listened, pressing her ear to my skin. Her office was connected to the private quarters by a brown leather-padded door with brass buttons.

Sometimes Mother stayed to talk to the doctor and I was sent through the thick door—which, although heavy, moved easily and noiselessly—to play with her daughter Lucy. Lucy was about my age, but I didn’t take to her; she was boring.

Another memory. It is night and I am standing on my bed, crying and terrified. I must be still very small, as I am holding the cot’s protective-netting bar with both hands. Mother and Mitzi, our household help, are with me, trying to calm me. But I cannot be pacified, because just a moment ago, a hand came through the wall and wanted to grab me. Mother lifts me out of the cot and takes me to the other side of the wall, which is the bathroom, to show me there is no hole in the wall. Both she and Mitzi are telling me that no hand can reach through a solid wall. But they don’t know; they haven’t seen the hand. I have. When I stop crying, they put me back to bed, believing that I have been convinced. They cover me and turn off the light. Yet the terror remains, and for many weeks afterward, I can only fall asleep when the cot is pushed away from the wall.

From the darkness of unknowing, another scene emerges. It is most disturbing. I am in the bathtub, and Mother is sitting on the rim. Suddenly I see tears flowing silently from her eyes. Mother is weeping soundlessly. It frightens me, and I start crying, too. “What have I done?” I ask. “What have I done?” But she only shakes her head and doesn’t answer. I don’t know why Mother cried. Had someone hurt her? Was it my fault? Did I misbehave? I have no clue, no idea. Even now, as I recall the event, I feel sorrow, guilt, and pain.

My mother’s maiden name was Elisabeth “Liesl” Adler. She had a brother named Hugo, who was ten years older. Their mother died when Liesl was a baby, and her father, a judge, married again. Mother told me that her stepmother was fair and conscientious but lacked warmth and motherly love. I don’t remember Grandfather Adler; he died soon after I was born. Hugo also became a judge. He married but didn’t have children. I only saw him twice in my life.

Mother and I stopped over in Brno for two or three days on our way to a vacation in the Tatra Mountains when I was six or seven. I remember vividly two scenes from that visit. Mother broke into tears when we entered Uncle Hugo’s flat. It was the same flat where Mother had grown up; when she had married, Hugo had remained living there. The same furniture was still there, which brought back old memories.

Wilhelm Adler with his daughter, Elisabeth Adler-Polach

The other scene I remember was from court. Hugo, wearing the violet judge’s cape, presided over a trial while we sat at the back of the courtroom. When it was over, Mother commented that it was quiet and unexciting, and Hugo replied, “I don’t do divorces. That’s why my trials are boring.”

My parents moved from their native Brno to Prague soon after they married. They rented a little flat on the ground floor of a villa. There was a garden with a lawn, flower beds, and gooseberry bushes around the fence. I was allowed to pick the berries but didn’t like them because they were hairy and sour. Mr. Hackenberg, the owner, was a friend and party colleague of my grandfather Johann.

The Hackenbergs had a huge German shepherd called Putzi, who was so gentle that he let me ride on his back. A snapshot shows me naked, aged about two, standing next to the dog, and we are the same height.

A memory comes back to me: Mr. Hackenberg and my mother are sitting on a bench in the garden, while I am playing in the sandbox. I am digging with my bare hands, making a tunnel. Suddenly a horrifying pink slimy thing comes wriggling out of the hole toward me. I scream in terror and run into my mother’s protective arms. When she understands what had frightened me, she bursts out laughing. Mr. Hackenberg also laughs. I feel ashamed, humiliated. How can they laugh when I was so frightened? My mother has formed a league with Mr. Hackenberg, and they mock me. She has let me down, betrayed me. How was I to know it was only an innocent earthworm? It was the first time in my life I had seen such a horrible creature.

I was three or four when we moved to another flat in Prague-Holešovice, and our household help, Mitzi, left us at that time. Nowadays only the rich have a live-in maid, but in prewar Europe, it was common practice. The young daughters of poor villagers came to the city to find employment, learn how to cook, learn good manners, and, if lucky, find a husband. They would occupy a tiny room provided for the servant in almost every flat, and they would receive a small wage and one free afternoon and free evening a week. Often they did not stay long with the family, either because they were too slow or were caught stealing; some became pregnant and had to be dismissed.

My mother was proud that the reason our Mitzi left us was because she was getting married. Her husband-to-be was a cobbler who had a shop around the corner on the main street, near the number six tram stop. Soon after she got married, Mitzi invited me for a Sunday breakfast. I was allowed to go alone; on Sunday morning the street was deserted, and I was very proud to walk unaccompanied. Mitzi and her husband lived behind the shop in a room that smelled of glue and leather. The shop was closed, and Mitzi made me feel like an honored guest. She served me a big slice of her Gugelhupf, the same as my mother used to bake, but hers tasted more festive, somehow. I was very happy and proud to be treated as an adult.

There were more such breakfasts, but they became rarer, and after some time, Mitzi and her cobbler moved away; I think he had to close the shop because it didn’t provide them enough of a living. We never heard from Mitzi again.

While Mitzi was still with us, my mother and I went for a holiday to her native village. It was in the German-speaking region called Böhmerwald, also known as the Bohemian Forest. For a few days Mitzi stayed there with us, then she went back to Prague to oversee the housepainters, who were redecorating the flat during our absence. I remember it because when we came home, there was a smell of fresh paint and newly waxed floors.

There was a shallow river behind the farmhouse where we lodged. Another memory surfaces, of me, and several local children, standing knee-deep in the stream. The cascading water was crystal clear, and we were collecting gold. Yes, genuine gold. The grains were no bigger than poppy seeds, but they shone among the pebbles in the transparent water.

We held them in our palms and let the sun play on them. It was very exciting. Today when I see a film about the Gold Rush, I smile and remember how I too was a gold digger once upon a time.

* * *

It was in that village where I first learned about death.

There was a road running along the foot of the hill on the opposite bank of the river. A horse was lying on the road, its head and neck hanging over the sloping incline. Behind the horse was an overturned cart. The horse didn’t move. I stood, watching, for a long time, waiting for the horse to get up. Several people stood around. They too waited. But the horse didn’t move, and I began to realize the frightening, terrible fact that the animal would never rise again … that it was dead. I was very disturbed and scared. Yet as with other discoveries made later in life, it was not as if I was encountering a new phenomenon, but rather as if some knowledge, which had lain dormant within me, emerged into the light of consciousness. As Plato believed: “Much of our knowledge is inherent in the psyche in latent form.” It was the first intimation that the world was not such a bright and happy place as it had been up to that point.

My next encounter with death occurred a few years later, when I was eight years old. One morning, near the school, I saw a bunch of children pressed to the fence that enclosed the schoolyard. Behind the fence was a steep slope, and at the bottom there was a railway. There, on the tracks, lay a figure: someone dead, looking more like a heap of clothes than a body. The children were staring down, hushed and immobile. It was a moment of profound sadness. I knew it was a suicide; someone who no longer wanted to live had jumped under a train. The place is forever associated in my memory with tragedy. Even when, after almost sixty years, I stood again near my old school, I was drawn to the same spot at the fence, as if the pitiful figure were still lying there.

* * *

A frequent visitor to our home was Aunt Lori (Grandmother’s distant relative), whom I liked very much. She always brought me nice presents. She herself was not married and had no children, but she just knew what would please a little girl.

Once she brought me a stuffed toy dachshund. I called it Waldi. It was black, velvety soft, and cuddly and had a red leather collar and leash. I would “walk” it behind me as I saw people do with real dogs.

One day I was sitting with my dog in front of our building on a little stool when I needed to go upstairs. I tied the leash to the cellar window grille and told Waldi to be good and wait for me. I used to see dogs tied to a post in front of shops, waiting for their masters.

When I returned, the dog was gone. I was terribly unhappy. I couldn’t grasp that someone was so bad and cruel that they would take my dog and that I would never see Waldi again. I cried bitterly with pain and disappointment.

* * *

While Mitzi came from the German-speaking border area, our second maid, Maria, was from a Czech village. My parents had been educated in the German language, as were most Jews in Brno of those times. They spoke Czech well enough, but my perfectionist father did not want me to pick up his occasional inaccuracies. So it was decided to engage a Czech girl, from whom I would learn the native accent.

I passed Maria on the stairs the day she came to introduce herself. She was flying downstairs with her open coat fluttering behind. Our eyes met, and I fell in love with her. I didn’t know she was coming from our flat, but when she came back after a few days to live with us, I was very happy. She could have been about sixteen, very pretty and full of life and laughter. She was also fond of me, and I liked going for walks with her better than with my parents. I remember her telling me of her former employers, who were very stern with her. She pointed out their house to me and told me about the dictatorial Mrs. Brod. I imagined her as the witch stepmother from “Snow White.”

Maria and I became conspirators. My mother would never buy me colored lemonade or ice pops from street vendors, but Maria herself was crazy about them and sometimes treated us both, paying with her own money and swearing me to secrecy.

Our flat had two large rooms and a small one. The small room was mine, and the others were my parents’ bedroom and the living room with the round dining table in the middle. Our Maria, therefore, spent her nights on a folding bed in the kitchen, which she pulled upright every morning and hid beneath a curtain. She had a private wardrobe for herself in the kitchen with a full-length mirror inside. She used to stand behind the open door when she dressed, before going out on her weekly free afternoon.

Once I sneaked behind her and saw her breasts. “Your brunslíky are bigger than my mother’s,” I said. She burst out laughing and, when she repeated it to my mother, she too joined in the merriment. Brunslíky was a meaningless word, which I must have invented or jumbled from another, but since then it became our family’s official term for that part of the female anatomy.

Maria’s work wasn’t hard: the parquet floors were covered with carpets that had to be vacuumed; once in a while the double-glazed windows needed washing; the stone floor in the kitchen needed to be polished. One of the features that astonished visitors to our house was the automated laundry in the basement. Since there were about sixteen flats in each of the two wings of the Electric House, we had to book our washing day in advance at the janitor’s.

I loved to accompany Maria as she took the two large baskets full of washing down in the lift. The air in the basement was dry and warm and smelled of soap and cleanness. The two huge drums of the washing machines rotated with a low hum. There were hot-air drying cabins. I liked to hear the bell that announced the end of drying, and then Maria would roll out the pulleys, take down the starched sheets, and run them through the ironing press. A few hours later we ascended to the fourth floor with the beautifully folded and scented linen.


Copyright © 2020 by Dita Kraus