Editor's note: The novel, which was originally named "The Diary", was written after the war by Otto (Ota) B. Kraus. The story of a diary is a literary introduction, yet the events described in the book are real. Otto was one of the adult instructors in the children's block in Auschwitz and his wife Dita (then Edita Pollachova, age 14) was the librarian.
The Painted Wall tells the true story of 500 Jewish children who lived in the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau between September 1943 and June 1944. The children were kept on a Children's Block supervised by the notorious Dr. Mengele, where their instructors organized clandestine lessons, singalongs and even staged little plays and charades.
The Children's Block was intended to provide the Nazis with an alibi to refute the rumors of the Final Solution. As long as the Children's Block existed, it was a shelter and haven for the hundreds of children, who soon afterwards perished in the gas chambers.
People write about the book:
Eli Wiesel (Boston University, Massachusetts): "I read Ota Kraus' manuscript and am impressed. Yes, it deserves to be published".
Antonio Iturbe, Bestselling author of THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ: ‘Otto B Kraus brings together the strength of his own personal experience in the tiny barracks-school immersed in the darkness of Auschwitz with the story telling powers of an exceptional writer…He will from now on occupy the important place he deserves among writers of the twentieth century’
Yossi Sarid (Former Minister of Education, Israel) "...I read The Painted Wall and was moved... the important collective memory will be cherished".
Dr. Judith Kestenberg (Jerome Riker International Study of Organized Persecution of Children): "I think it is very important that this authentic fiction be published. I expect that this moving book will also become a best seller".
Dr. Ronald Hischfeld (Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung, Bonn, Germany): "Personally I was deeply impressed after reading the book. I think it should be published in my country".
Dr. Nili Keren (Head of Holocaust Studies Department, Teacher's College, Tel Aviv): "The history of the Children's Bolck in Auschwitz-Birkenau is an interesting and touching subject. It is a pedagogical and human epic which reveals a new face of Jewish resistance and deserves to be made public".
The Painted Wall
To my wife Dita without whom this book wouldn't have been written.
The events here described really happened. The book is based on research, my personal experience and on interviews with surviving instructors of the Children's Block in the Czech Family Camp in Birkenau-Auschwitz.
The characters, except for Fredy Hirsch, Dr. Mengele and the SS-guards, are composites of several people and shouldn't be identified with any particular person.
Otto (Ota) B. Kraus
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob:
And thy tabernacles, O Israel.
This book is a story based on Alex Ehren's diaries. I had to edit the script, which would have been obscure to readers unfamiliar with the Czech Family Camp in Birkenau-Auschwitz. I filled the gaps where pages where missing, either lost or simply not copied in the hasty specimen I received from Antonin Dominicus. I kept the narrative close to the original, though I have changed the names of people. Many of them are dead but those who are still alive might feel embarrassed by events mentioned in the diary.
As I leaf through the pages I see in my mind the cache we dug under our bunk. We took turns scooping out the dirt with our mess bowls and then we strewed it on the camp road were it melted with the mud. We worked with our spoons but were careful not to break their handles because, had I lost my spoon, I would have had to lap my soup like a dog. We covered the hole with a plank which Shashek pried loose from behind his cot, where it was dark even at noon. Had somebody reported the missing board the Block Senior would have sentenced us to twenty cane lashes. We saved some of the dirt and spread it over the plank to make it look like the pressed earth of the floor and we opened our cache only at night to conceal the pages Alex Ehren had written during the day. By the end of June, which was the time scheduled for our execution, we had a hundred and twenty-three diary sheets written in Alex's small hand, in which the end strokes curled upwards like piglets' tails and the letter "g" looked like figures of eight.
We lived on a bunk built for four but in times of overcrowding, namely before the departure of the September transport and after the arrival of the May contingent, 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.
We decided to write a diary to establish a link with the world and time. We were like a stone cast into the void of the universe, out of time, damned, forsaken and utterly alone. We believed that by leaving a written record we wouldn't vanish from human memory like a word torn away by wind or a letter written on running water. We knew that there was little chance that anybody would ever read the diary. The pages might fall into the hands of the Block Senior or Blockfuehrer who would burn them to ashes. Yet even if the folder survived it might never be found after we were marched to the gas chambers. Still, our enterprise brightened our nights and bolstered our spirits during our smoke- filled days.
We chose Alex Ehren to write the records because he had access to a pencil and paper. He also had a table and the privacy of the stall when the children met their parents before the evening roll call. Besides, Alex Ehren was a poet and had a way with words. I still remember crumbs of his verses although after so many years I have probably changed some words or lost the fall of his rhythm or confused his lines with some other poems I read later. His verses may sound trivial today but we were silently impressed when he whispered their words into the murkiness of our bunk.
Alex Ehren was a poet but the records were not entirely his. We shared not only the narrow space of our berth but also our thoughts and fears, which Alex molded into round sentences and paragraphs. We were all actors in a play and though we were not on stage, our voices did play a part. I didn't know if there were lines Alex kept for himself, thoughts and events he was too shy to share.
We wrapped the diary in tarpaper torn from the roof and in an oilskin sleeve which we had bartered for a bread ration with a Russian prisoner of war. The oilskin must have belonged to a Baltic fisherman because it smelled of mermaids and fish and decaying algae. When we touched it we closed our eyes and dreamt about the freedom of the ocean, the ships that sailed to exotic places, islands fragrant with spices and coasts sweet with lemon blossom. Each time we buried the parcel, its flavor lingered on my fingers and reminded me that, although I would dissolve into a wisp of smoke, the records would prevail and bear witness that we had lived.