The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

There’s no shortage of Holocaust literature, and yet every so often one story rises to the top of the best-seller lists – why is one story more ‘appealing’ than another? I don’t know. Why does one story capture attention over others? I don’t know. The current critics’ favourite is The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris.

Morris has recorded the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1942. When the guards at the camp discovered that Lale spoke several languages, he was put to work as a Tätowierer (tattooist), tasked with ‘numbering’ his fellow prisoners.

Day has become night, and still men line up to be numbered for life, be it short or long.

Lale is imprisoned for over two and a half years, and although his story includes the atrocities and horror that we associate with the Holocaust, and particularly Auschwitz, this is essentially a love story.

In July 1942, Lale tattoos the number 34902 on the arm of a terrified young woman. After that first encounter, Lale vows to discover her name, survive the camp and marry her.

Her name was Gita, and The Tattooist of Auschwitz describes how Lale used his privileged position as Tätowierer to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive, and for favours from the guards to allow him to spend time with Gita.

I have thought about why this particular story has captured so much attention – perhaps it’s because the tattooed numbers are one of the most recognisable, and de-humanising symbols of the Holocaust? Perhaps it’s because it’s a love story and some people want to find happiness in even the darkest of times? Perhaps it’s because the story explores the grey zone, where prisoners did whatever they had to in order to survive, even when that meant working for the enemy (it seems there are an increasing number of stories about the Kapo)?

Anyway, I’m conflicted. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is unquestionably an incredible story of survival (both during Lale and Gita’s imprisonment and afterwards, in the time before they were reunited), however, the delivery was so straightforward it was devoid of emotion. And this lack of feeling was made all the more evident when I reached the end of the book, and read the author’s notes and afterword by Lale and Gita’s son – these sections had what I was looking for – insight and feeling. I wonder what book it could have been, had it been written in the voice of the final pages?

I was not surprised to discover that Morris is a screenwriter – I can’t help but think she had actors with telling facial expressions in mind as she was writing, because the book reads like a script.

There’s another element to my conflict – if, in telling his story, Lale found peace, then who am I to judge? I know the therapeutic value in the telling – the end product is irrelevant.

2/5 I said ‘who am I to judge?’ and yet I did… I’m in the minority on this book but I will see the movie.

7 responses

  1. I thought this book was TERRIBLE and couldn’t finish it. I could go on and on about why I didn’t like it, as geez, there was so much wrong with it. I completely agree with the screenwriter bit; when I read about that, it all made sense. I think it’s terrific if it educates people about the atrocities, and it probably will make a great film – but in terms of a contribution to literature, there was none (in my humble view). And I know I too am in the minority.

  2. I didn’t get past page 2; I just thought it was pretty terribly written, and even if it was a good story I wasn’t willing to put up with that for nearly 300 pages. I’d see the movie, though!

  3. Hi Kate – I have been reading some of your blog posts. I think that your blog is very impressive.

    I had read about this book on couple of other blogs. The plot does sound so intriguing. I can see why so many are interested in it and I can see why it is a good candidate for film. With that there seems to be a consensus that it is poorly written. That is too bad considering that the premise seems so good.

  4. All of the things you describe as possible reasons this has done well seem plausible to me. There are so many books about this time period that personally, I look for something that seems to have a fresh perspective. It’s too bad this wasn’t more emotionally engaging!

    • I’ve read a few books about the Holocaust lately so perhaps I’m judging it more harshly but like you, I look for a different perspective that is emotionally engaging – this book only ticked one of those boxes!

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