The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ
by Heather Morris
There are some books which are easy to review and some books that are much harder. There are lots of reasons why a book can be hard to review - it has nothing to do with the quality of the story, or the merit of the writing, more an inability to convey your thoughts and feelings in a way that will do justice to the author or show respect to the topics they have written about.
This is a hard book to review because although fictionalised, Morris has based her story on real people, real experiences and a very real moment in history. It is impossible not to be affected by a book that depicts the absolute cruelty, violence, brutality and horror of the holocaust. It is hard to review a book on such an emotive and upsetting subject.
Even though I might not be able to review this book with the justice, articulation and detail it deserves, I will recommend it. I have not slept as a result of reading this book and no doubt will be haunted by it for a very long time, but I do not regret reading it. Lale's story is a powerful one; his courage and defiance makes him a hero and there is so much within this story that needs to be heard.
The story is of Lale Sokolov, who has returned to his family home in Slovakia following the news that the Jews in small towns are being rounded up and transported to work for the Germans. Each Jewish family has to hand over a child aged eighteen or older to work for the German Government. Lale reports to the local government department offering himself for transportation. He is taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
He is number 32407.
And so begins the story of the tattooist of Auschwitz. Lale finds himself in the role as the Tetovierer, the tattooist, against his will, but in Auschwitz the decisions and judgements you make are solely about surviving and are nothing like the decisions you made in your previous life. If Lale wants to stay alive in the camp, he quickly realises that he will have to do things he may never forgive himself for, but things that might mean he survives - at least another day if not another week. When Lale tells Pepan he can not make such a cruel mark on another's skin, Pepan is almost angry in his reply and shows Lale how the world within Auschwitz works:
"You can. You must. If you don't, someone else will, and my saving you will have been for nothing. Just do the job, Lale."
This novel is his account of what he had to do save himself.
The title of this book is very powerful. Lale's job was to tattoo every person coming into the camp. He works six days a week - sometimes seven - all day and sometimes into the night for three years tattooing the arms of people who have been rounded up, stripped of their belongings, their identity and their name.
"Day has become night and still men line up to be numbered for life, be it short or long."
He knows that by marking the arms of these people he is committing a violation. He knows how brutal and cruel this one act is. He knows it is demeaning and degrading. He knows that by doing this job he has bought himself one more day of staying alive. But also a lifetime of guilt and fear that he may be seen as a collaborator or perpetrator.
Within the confines of the camp, Lale meets Gita and they fall in love. Love gives both Gita and Lale something to live for, fight for, stay safe for and their weekly chance to meet helps shape the months and offer some solace and warmth in desperate conditions. Morris mainly follows Lale's story but we do spend time with Gita too and we do see some of what the women in the camp are exposed to. The interaction between Gita and Lale is often painful to read as it emphasises the effect this barbarism had on people emotionally and psychologically but it also offers hope, tenderness and a much needed glimpse of the strength and courage of the men and women interned in the camp. Lale can be playful and humorous and tries to remind Gita that they have a chance to be happy and return to their real lives although she is reluctant to hear or accept this while they are still prisoners.
"My name is Ludwig Eisenberg, but people call me Lale. I come from Krompachy, Slovakia. I have a mother, a father, a brother and a sister. Now it's your turn."
"I am prisoner 34902 in Birkenau, Poland."
Friendships, loyalty and allegiances operate under exceptional circumstances but they exist and they exist fiercely. Both Lale and Gita not only show the other people in their blocks kindness but they are also recipients of great acts of kindness and generosity even when there is nothing really to give or share. Rubies and diamonds are exchanged for a tiny square of chocolate, a slither of sausage, a crust of bread.
Lale is a character who easily wins the empathy and sympathy of the reader. From the outset, he is kind, thoughtful, always trying to do the right thing and always trying to help as many people as he can against the horrific odds, often taking risks that could cost him his life. He manages to remain relatively calm, upbeat, ever hopeful and still talk of a future and the world outside of Auschwitz despite the absolute brutality of life within the camp and the cruelty, violence and inhumanity he is exposed to daily. Lale's instincts, cleverness, quick thinking and unrelenting alertness saves his life, and sometimes the lives of those around him, on several occasions.
"If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day."
Lale frequently witnesses "unimaginable acts" and this is not easy reading. Whatever we know of life within Auschwitz it is always immensely hard to read witness accounts or details about the acts that took place there. The words 'shot', 'shooting', 'beating,' and 'dead' litter the pages and the sheer volume of people that inhabit the pages, pass through the camps, disappear, are unaccounted for, and are murdered is utterly overwhelming. The description of naked bodies, bodies crammed into small spaces, the jostle, the rows, the lines, the piles of discarded bodies appears on almost every page and again, it's overwhelming. That Lale survives is a miracle.
"Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism."
As I said before, this is based on the true story of Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov and the novel has grown from years of interviews between Heather Morris and Lale. Her fictionalisation of his account is highly commendable. Content aside, the vivid detail, the depiction of the camp, the characterisation and the fluency and readability of the book reflects her skill as an author. This is impressive as a project and as a debut novel.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is unforgettable. Lale and Gita are amazing people and Lale's ability to stay forever hopeful and strong enough to overcome all the hardship of Auschwitz is incredible. I would recommend this book to everyone.
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of this novel via NetGalley.
Heather Morris is a native of New Zealand, now resident in Australia, working in a large public hospital in Melbourne. For several years she studied and wrote screenplays, one of which was optioned by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter in the US. In 2003, Heather was introduced to an elderly gentleman who 'might just have a story worth telling'. The day she met Lale Sokolov changed both their lives, as their friendship grew and he embarked on a journey on self-scrutiny, entrusting the innermost details of his life during the Holocaust to her. Heather originally wrote Lale's story as a screenplay - which ranked high in international competitions - before reshaping it into her debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.