Note: Since reading this book and writing this review, I have become aware of controversy surrounding the book. My impressions of this are based on my reading pre-controversy, and since then I have decided I’m not as impressed with this one, that things might not have been done ethically. We all learn from things like this, and now I am much more discerning when it comes to stories about this topic.
Title: The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 1st February 2018
Synopsis: The incredible story of the Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist and the woman he loved.
Lale Sokolov is well-dressed, a charmer, a ladies’ man. He is also a Jew. On the first transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz in 1942, Lale immediately stands out to his fellow prisoners. In the camp, he is looked up to, looked out for, and put to work in the privileged position of tätowierer – the tattooist – to mark his fellow prisoners, forever. One of them is a young woman, Gita, who steals his heart at first glance.
His life given new purpose, Lale does his best through the struggle and suffering to use his position for good.
This story, full of beauty and hope, is based on years of interviews author Heather Morris conducted with real-life Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz- Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov. It is heart-wrenching, illuminating, and unforgettable.
In 1942, Slovakia is slowly falling into the grip of the Nazis as they march across Europe during war time, invading towns and countries, and rounding up Jews, and other groups seen as undesirable in their quest for German victory. Lale Solokov, born Ludwig Eisenberg, volunteers himself at 24 for what they are told is a work detail, to save his family. Lale prepares for a life away from his family, with clothes and books, though none of them know what lies ahead for Lale, or what the future holds in store for any of them as the Nazis continue their rampage. Instead of the promised job, Lale finds himself dumped at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps. Here, he will have everything taken from him, his head shaved, and a number inked into his skin, marking him for life as 32407, stripped of any other identity for three years. In Auschwitz, he is given the job of Tätowierer – and must tattoo numbers onto each new arrival – the ones not immediately sent to the gas chambers. It is here he will meet the woman he falls in love with – Gita – and soon finds himself find ways to get contraband to her and spend time with her, all at risk to his own life as well as hers.
In a moving fictionalised account of Lale’s life, Heather Morris, who spent three years interviewing Lale, has recreated the atmosphere of the camp, a dank, smothering atmosphere where the air is thick with ash and the screams of the dying that Lale and other prisoners are forced to listen to as they work in fields, in administration, as Lale tattoos new prisoners every day. Some events Heather imagined, to fill in the gaps, such as a scene where Lale and Gita were together when the American planes flew over Auschwitz, but most of it is true, based on Lale’s recollections.
It is a dark story, because the Holocaust was one of the darkest times in world history. But it is one of those events, and there are many – that we should never forget, never let happen again. Through the dark, colourless life of Auschwitz, and the torturous conditions Lale and Gita had to live in, their love endured, and they never gave up hope of finding each other when the camp finally closed down and the prisoners were sent on death marches or simply ran away, with the hope of finding people who could help them. The shadows that Lale and Gita fought were real, and this is a story that everyone should read, another Holocaust story that reminds us what complacency and allowing evil to manipulate an entire nation can result in.
The language is simple and accessible, yet it deals with the complexities of life, of love and the Holocaust in a way that shocks the reader but at the same time, gives them hope that Lale and Gita will find a way out of the camp. Through the darkness of war and death, it is their love for each other, and determination to live, that brought this story to life so that people reading it now will never forget what happened.
A moving, dark story that must be read, and learnt from so that something like this stays where it should: in the shadows and smoke of history, never to be repeated but to serve as a reminder of what humans are capable of at their very worst.