The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

‘a story of two ordinary people, living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but their dignity, their names and their identities.’

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Zaffre|4 Oct. 2018|320 pages|Paperback|3*

Yesterday when I finished reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I didn’t want to write about it, but I kept thinking about it and in the end I decided I needed to record a few of my thoughts about it. It is not a book I can say that I ‘enjoyed’, because I didn’t – the subject matter is too painful, how can you enjoy a book that describes the horrors of one person’s experience of his time in the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau*!

It is ‘based on the true story of Lale Sokolov’.  He was born Ludwig Eisenberg on 28 October 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia and transported to Auschwitz on 23 April 1942. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival. He met and fell in love with Gita, a fellow prisoner and he was determined that they would be survivors. The story Heather Morris tells is simply devastating and I could hardly bear to read the horrors of life in the concentration camps; it is appalling as it reveals the brutality, hatred and evil side of human nature. But is also about love, determination, compassion, and the strength of human nature. 

It is simply told in a straight forward, childlike style and in the present tense. It is certainly a most unsettling and depressing book, despite the fact that I knew that Lale and Gita would survive their horrific experience.

Heather Morris wrote the book after meeting Lale and hearing his story. In her Author’s Note she tells how she spent three years listening to him as

he told his story piecemeal, sometimes slowly, sometimes at bullet-pace and without clear connections between the many, many episodes. … Lale’s memories were on the whole, remarkably clear and precise.

The epilogue describes what happened to Lale and Gita after the end of the war. They married, moved to Bratislava, and, after travelling to Paris, eventually moved to Melbourne. There are photos at the end of the book of Lale and Gita in Australia with Gary their son and an Afterword by Gary about their family life and how their years in the camp affected them both.

But the line between fiction and fact can be blurred in a novel and there are claims that ‘the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements‘. I have read the article pointing out the errors etc. It concludes that the book should be seen as an ‘impression devoid of documentary value on the topic of Auschwitz, only inspired by authentic events … Given the number of factual errors, therefore, this book cannot be recommended as a valuable title for persons who want to explore and understand the history of KL Auschwitz.’

It seems to me that it is a novel that clearly conveys what Lale experienced during the three years he spent in Auschwitz, as he remembered it many years later. Despite the errors that have been pointed out, I think it is a story of man’s inhumanity to man and a tribute to the strength of the human spirit for survival.

KL Auschwitz-Birkenau 

The first and oldest was the so-called “main camp,” later also known as “Auschwitz I” (the number of prisoners fluctuated around 15,000, sometimes rising above 20,000), which was established on the grounds and in the buildings of prewar Polish barracks;

The second part was the Birkenau camp (which held over 90,000 prisoners in 1944), also known as “Auschwitz II” This was the largest part of the Auschwitz complex. The Nazis began building it in 1941 on the site of the village of Brzezinka, three kilometers from Oswiecim. The Polish civilian population was evicted and their houses confiscated and demolished. The greater part of the apparatus of mass extermination was built in Birkenau and the majority of the victims were murdered here;’ (extract from the history page of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum)