I finally got around to reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, a true story that I have been meaning to read for ages, but have been putting off due to personal concerns, which I’ll address after my trigger warning.
EDIT: I’ve updated this review after being contacted by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center. While the book clearly states that it is based on a true story, and the material is presented as completely factual, there has been some controversy about this. The Auschwitz Memorial Research Center has fact checked much of the information in the book, and found that it doesn’t match documented records that were kept (see here for more information). The author now admits that while this book is rooted in Lale’s life story, ultimately it is a work of fiction. I felt obligated to detract a star, since fictionalizing a true story to make it somehow more “exciting” or gain sales is deplorable to me.
TRIGGER WARNING:This is a book about the Holocaust, so there are a lot of potential triggers in this book. These include violence, discrimination based on religion and ethnicity, derogatory language used to describe Romany and Jewish people, psychological and physical abuse, forced starvation and labor, rape, murder, genocide, mutilation and medical experimentation performed by medical doctors within concentration camps.
I’ve heard a lot about this book, and have wanted to read it for quite some time. My own father lived through the Holocaust in Poland, although he and his family survived by hiding out. If they hadn’t chosen to go into hiding, the odds of their survival would have been zero, since the occupants of their ghetto were all sent to Treblinka, which was a camp built solely for extermination. My father freely spoke about his experiences within the family, so I’ve always grown up knowing about the Holocaust. I was concerned that my father’s story could influence my ability to review this book objectively. But I decided to just give it a try, and if I struggled, to set it aside and try again later.
In April 1942, Lale Sokolov is a 25 year-old Jew from Slovakia who has willingly volunteered to work for the Germans, in an effort to keep his family safe. He is transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp in Poland. When the German guards learn that he speaks many languages fluently, he is given the job of tattooing his fellow prisoners so the Nazis could keep track of them as well as dehumanize them further, and in return receives additional privileges. In his two and a half years as the tattooist of Auschwitz, he witnesses atrocities beyond belief, but also finds amazing acts of compassion and bravery. Lale uses his position of privilege to barter jewels and money from murdered Jews for food that he can share with others to keep them alive.
One day, Lale has to tattoo a number onto the arm of a frightened young woman. He tries his best to comfort her, and when he looks into her eyes, he makes a connection with her. Over the years, he gets to know the woman, named Gita, and vows to marry her. This is a story of the triumph of love and the human spirit even through one of the darkest periods in history.
The description of the ride on the packed cattle car from Prague to Auschwitz made me feel claustrophobic and I found myself gasping for fresh air. When they were finally let out, only to see the entrance to the camp, with the gate bearing the words in German stating “work makes you free,” I got chills, even though I’ve only seen it in photographs:
“The men trudge toward the looming, dirty pink-brick buildings with picture windows. Trees line the entrances, flush with new spring growth. As Lale walks through open iron gates, he looks up at the German words wrought from the metal:
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
He doesn’t know where he is or what work he will be expected to do, but the idea that it will set him free has the feeling of a sick joke.”
This book contains the history of my people. The author’s descriptions made the characters come alive. What the author touches on briefly, my father’s stories fill in. The author mentions the bitterly cold winters and heavy snows in Poland. I can hear my father telling me stories of when his eyes would freeze shut while sleeping in the forest in wintertime. But what really touched me was when Lale smuggled some chocolate into the camp and shared it with Gita, describing how they savored it. When is the last time we savored a single bite of chocolate this thoroughly:
“He places it on her lips, letting her feel the texture of it, before slowly pushing it a little farther into her mouth. She presses her tongue against it. Lale pulls it back to her lips. Now moistened, he rubs the chocolate gently across her lips, and she licks it off with delight. When he pushes it into her mouth, she bites down, taking a chunk off, opening her eyes wide. Savoring the taste, she says ‘Why does chocolate taste so much better when it’s fed to you?'”
People who lived through the Holocaust in general were a strong and tough group of people. They were fighters, survivors in every sense of the word. They weren’t people who gave up easily. In the book, there were some who didn’t have the strength or the will to fight, and people who couldn’t face the horrors they were dealing with. Many died from starvation, exposure, disease, or chose to throw themselves against the electrified fence. Many more were killed in gas chambers or were shot.
Lale has a strong will to get through this experience alive, no matter what. He never gives up hope of getting back to his family, and finding Gita early on also gives him more incentive to survive the camp. Senseless deaths that he witnesses on his first night in Auschwitz solidifies his resolve:
“I will live to leave this place. I will walk out a free man. If there is a hell, I will see these murderers burn in it.”
His survival strategy, even on the cattle cars taking him to Auschwitz, is a simple one. He:
“…keeps his head down, does what he is asked, never argues. At the same time, he observes everyone and everything gong on around him.”
This is where his knowledge of multiple languages comes in handy, especially when the SS guards don’t realize he understands their conversations in German. Lale’s knowledge of languages is a valuable skill throughout the book. When I went to Israel, I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish writer and journalist who was kept at Auschwitz, wrote, “The camp’s law is that those going to their death should be deceived until the end.” This really stood out to me at the time, and this book really illustrated that, although Lale’s tendency to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open let him see what was really going on much earlier than most.
Difficult times meant that people did whatever they had to do to survive. When refusing an order meant instant death, while choosing a job that is repugnant and goes against all morals means a chance not only at your survival, but also that of others, the choice seems much easier to make. Lale struggles with his choice, but comes to a place of acceptance throughout the book. It isn’t an easy job to have, but he finds ways to cope.
Lale is a truly special man, even among the worst type of hell on Earth. He remains kind, even to the SS officer who oversees his work, a cruel, callous, and ignorant man, and Lale still offers him dating advice. When his previously empty building is filled with Romany families (you may know them by the derogatory term “Gypsies,”) that are looked at as the filth of Europe, Lale takes the time to get to know them and learn about their culture. He is actually adopted as an honorary Romany within days.
Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the author’s note, she said that Lale wanted his story told so that “it would never happen again.”
In the days, months, and years after the war, the focus was on rebuilding their shattered lives, trying to locate any family members that may have survived. Many families discovered that they were no longer welcome in their own homes. Lingering anti-Semitism and pogroms made it impossible to remain in their own countries any longer. There was no time to focus on mental health care. There was no understanding of how to provide mental health care. So they just went on surviving as best they could.
But the reality is that there was an incredibly damaging impact on the mental health of Holocaust survivors. The description in the book of the immense damage suffered by survivors is accurate, however, for some reason it is only limited to the women:
“Their futures have been derailed, and there will be no getting back on the same track. The visions they once had of themselves, as daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, workers, travelers, and lovers, will forever be tainted by what they’ve witnessed and endured.”
It affected the men as well. Studies are now showing that this trauma can be intergenerational, meaning that it isn’t just limited to survivors, but can be passed on to their children and even grandchildren. I know that my own father suffered terribly from PTSD, and he wasn’t in a camp. Survivor’s guilt is another common occurrence. While some are able to find out what happened to relatives, there are many who never found out what happened to their relatives. The effects of the Holocaust stay with a survivor for their entire life. They may have lived through it, but how does a person move on from this?
A quote that Lale uses several times in the book is similar to a quote from the Talmud (Jewish law) that my father said all the time: “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire.” Lale’s friend saves his life, and it sets the stage for Lale to become the tattooist of Auschwitz, thereby do a greater service for many. Every life is valuable, and saving a single life is just as important as saving many. Miracles happen all the time, if we look for them. This book is a shining example of the miracles that surround us. It would be easy to say this could be a depressing book, but it’s a book that focuses on the hope and love that can be found even in the darkest pit of despair.
For more information about the Holocaust, please visit:
Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center
Categories: Book Review