Novels by Otto (Ota) B. Kraus (1921-2000) were published in the USA, Israel, Germany and the Czech Republic. The book "Land Without God" (Zeme Bez Boha) is mentioned in the Encyclopedia Judaica p. 1207 C under: "The Jewish contribution to Czech literature". Among other publications by O. B. Kraus are: Mountain Wind, The Dream Merchant, Tel Kotzim (Thorny Hill-in Hebrew) and The Painted Wall, which tells the story of the Childrens' Block in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the novel The Painted Wall,
Otto (Ota) B. Kraus writes about his own experience in Auschwitz during
WWII. Otto was one of the instructors in the children's block and his
(future) wife Dita,
was the librarian for the children, of whom only a handfull survived.
The book, which was originally named "The Diary", was written after the
war. The story of a diary is but a literary introduction, yet the events
described in the book are real.
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 Painted Wall:
Eli Wiesel (Boston University, Massachusetts): "I read Ota Kraus' manuscript and am impressed. Yes, it deserves to be published".
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
Otto,B. Kraus Biography by Dita Kraus November 2010
Otto Kraus was born 1st
September 1921 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. His name in Czech is Ota ,
that’s also how it appears on his birth and school certificates. His father Richard
was one of eight children. He had started as an apprentice in a textile
shop and worked himself up until he became the owner of a factory for
ladies underwear. When he was financially established he courted and
married Marie Strass, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant from a small town named Nachod.
Otto was their first son, seven years later they had a second boy Harry. They lived in an unsightly but spacious family house on a busy street in the Strasnice districtof
Prague. Behind the house stood the low factory building where some
fifty seamstresses produced nightgowns, embroidered silk underwear and
dressing gowns. Otto’s mother worked all day in the factory supervising
the production, while his father dealt with customer contacts and sales.
They kept a maid and a nanny for the children.
was independent from an early age. Despite being a fat boy, he played
tennis and swam, was a member of the Boy Scouts and won a championship
in table tennis. But mostly he read books. His literature teacher soon
became aware of his writing talent and encouraged him to write. A great
influence on Otto was his grandmother, a cultured lady who was eager to
read everything he wrote and bought him many books. His own parents were
immersed in their business and had no time to read literature, his
father just read the newspaper.
a teenager he was attracted by Marxism and became what was mockingly
called a “salon communist”. Yet with the German occupation of
Czechoslovakia, Czech Jewry suddenly found itself separated from the
rest of the population. Otto felt this intensely, he was suddenly
stripped of his identity as a Czech of Jewish faith. He turned to
Zionism and became an active member of the movement. He went on
Hachshara with a group of young Jewish boys and girls and for two years
worked on farms in preparation for alyiah to Eretz Israel.
instead of going to Eretz Israel, Otto and his family were deported in
May 1942 to Ghetto Terezin. Thanks to his agricultural experience, he
became foreman in one of the vegetable gardens outside the ghetto walls.
They supplied fresh produce to the German SS troops. The Jewish youth
of the ghetto worked in the gardens and from time to time were able to
smuggle a piece of vegetable hidden in their clothes through the control
at the gates. Food was very scarce and even one cucumber or radish was a
great help against hunger.
the ghetto there were transports all the time to “the east” namely to
Auschwitz-Birkenau or to other extermination camps. Otto’s family were
deported in December 1943 and although he himself was protected from the
transports due to his work, he went with his parents and brother
voluntarily The inmates of the ghetto did not know their destination;
they naively believed the Germans’ version that they were being sent to
Auschwitz-Birkenau they were put in the so-called Familienlager. Otto
became one of the children’s counselors on the Kinderblock. This was a
barracks where the children were kept during the day. It shielded them,
at least partially, from the terrible conditions, the hunger and the
horrors of the chimneys of the crematoria.
camp was liquidated after six months. The able-bodied inmates were
selected by the notorious Dr. Mengele and sent to forced labor in
Germany, the rest of more than 7000 persons, children, the weak and the
elderly were killed in the gas chambers.
Otto was among the 1000 men sent to concentration camps in Germany,
about half of them to Schwarzheide. They suffered from cold, hunger,
hard labor and also lack of sleep because of the frequent air raids.
Towards the end of the war the Allied armies advanced and the camp was
evacuated. The exhausted, skeletal men walked on foot for more than two
weeks, dying in great numbers along the road. Of the one thousand men
less than 20 % reached Terezin and many died still after their
Otto returned to Prague where he learned that neither his parents, nor
his brother had survived. He received accommodation from the Czech
authorities, a flat that had been left by the fleeing Germans. He shared
it with a friend survivor of the same camp and his wife. He enrolled at
the university to study Literature, Philosophy, English and Spanish. He
received a modest grant and now started to rebuild his life.
He met Dita,
whom he remembered as one of the youths on the Kinderblock in Auschwitz
and they became friends. They were married in 1947 and in the same year
their first son Peter-Martin was born.
Otto had not finished his studies when he became heir to his father’s
factory. The couple moved to the villa and Otto tried to run the
business. But after a short time the communists staged a putsch and
toppled the democratic government. One of the first things they did was
to appropriate all privately owned businesses and declared them property
of the state. Otto became unemployed and they were expulsed from the
After some time Otto found work at the Ministry of culture. His job was
to read new English literature and recommend the books that were worthy
to be translated into Czech. However, his recommendations were then
processed by a committee of communist apparatchiks, who crossed out any
books that were deemed to be bourgeois and unsuitable for the masses.
Otto was the only employee at the “Red” Ministry who was not a
card-carrying communist party member. They employed him because of his
status as a successful young author.
Soon after his return from the camps Otto had written his first novel,
Land without God, (Země bez Boha), which was published to in Prague in
1948. The book was very successful although it dealt with Auschwitz and
its horrors. Yet it was considered the most important literary work
among post-war books about the Holocaust.
However, despite his literary success, Otto decided to realize his
Zionist dream to live in Israel, which had become an independent Jewish
State. Since he knew that he would not be allowed to emigrate being an
official of the Ministry, he resigned and found another post. Otto’s new
work was at the Jewish Community Center where he had a most unusual
job. His task was to destroy all the documents concerning the emigration
of Czech and Polish Jews via Prague to Israel. For several weeks he and
his secretary fed the little stove in the office with the evidence of
the mass alyiah. In fact, Otto was the last secretary of the Jewish
community until its rebirth following the “Velvet” revolution in 1989.
In May 1949 Otto and his family also made alyiah to Israel. In the
first year they lived on a moshav where they hoped to settle. But they
lacked the necessary money to join the cooperative and decided to move
to kibbutz Givat Chaim where they had some friends. From 1950 till 1957
they lived and worked on the kibbutz. Their second child, Michaela,
was born there in 1951. At first Otto worked in the kitchen, then as
“sanitar” and finally he became a teacher of English in the kibbutz
school. But after work, in the evenings he would write.
translation of Land without God came out in Hebrew. Otto wrote
Mountainwind (ruach min heharim), still in Czech, which the publishing
house of Hakibbutz Hameuchad rejected because it contained criticism of
the communal educational ideology. This and another reason, namely that
Dita was not happy in the collective, caused them to leave the kibbutz
in 1957. The book was later published by Hadar.
Otto, Dita and the two children moved to Hadassim, a boarding school
near Netanya. Otto taught English and so did Dita later when she
qualified at a teachers’ seminary. They lived in Hadassim for twenty
nine years. Otto felt he was losing his mastery of Czech and his
subsequent books were all written in English.
Michaela became ill when she was eight years old and was diagnosed with
an incurable liver disease. Two years later another son, Ronny,
was born. Michaela lived twelve more years and died at the age of
twenty. The hardest part was to conceal from the child the fact that she
would not live and pretend that she was getting better. Otto called
those twelve years his “second holocaust”.
Otto’s humor and knowledge of literature made him a very popular
teacher in the school. He was a good educator but in the evenings and
during vacations he sat and wrote. For some years he worked on a
manuscript, which he called Desert Years and of which he said that it
was his most important novel. Regrettably, despite his efforts Otto did
not find a publisher for it.
In 1986 Otto retired from teaching and started a new career. He studied
graphology. He was interested in discovering people through their
handwriting and soon became one of the most respected graphologists in
the country. The couple moved to Netanya, a town on the shores of the
few years later Otto became ill, at first it was his heart, but then he
was diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and although a very radical
surgery saved his life, he remained a very sick person for the last
years of his life. He died 5th October 2000, at home, surrounded by his family.