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 public".
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.
Otto 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.
As 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.
Yet 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.
From 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 labor camps.
In 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.
Their 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 liberation.
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 villa.
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.
A 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 Mediterranean.
A 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.