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.