‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ by Heather Morris is a moving tale of love, despair, and survival set during WW II. The book became a bestseller since its publication in 2018.
We have read and watched documentaries based on the horrors of the holocaust and the barbarity of the Nazis inside the concentration camps. Building on that, ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ evokes a sense of inquisitiveness in understanding the holocaust through the eyes of a survivor. The author interviewed Lale Sokolov in Australia over a period of 3 years towards the end of his life and backed his story with her extensive research. (Her effort to prove the authenticity of the story sans a few liberties on dramatizing certain scenes)
The book begins with young men forced inside cattle wagons on their way to an undisclosed location. Lale, a young man from Slovakia amidst countless men inside the wagon, tries to be calm and hopes for a better outcome at the end of the tracks. As you would gauge, Lale is shattered to see the reality, he has been sent to Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. His belongings are snatched, and he is tattooed and sent to the cramped quarters inside the camp. The same night, he witnesses death and brutality that would continue to repeat during his years of captivity.
While adapting to this new life at the camp, Lale is chosen to be the apprentice tatowerier or the tattooist. The ordeal of Lale’s job to tattoo the new inmates arriving at the camp each day shows the agony of terrified people snatched off their identities and freedom.
Lale sees Gita for the first time as he is marking her hands with the designated numbers. At that point, he is transported back to his days as a free man in Slovakia, a place where he could have held a woman’s hand, appreciated her beauty, and courted her. But here, the reality is muddled in horror. Physical labour, scarcity of food, and lack of amenities combine to soak up every bit of life from a human. Leave alone the feeling of love or compassion or friendship. Yet Lale is determined to know Gita and marry her one day. Quite presumptuous and cinematically chivalrous in the wake of doom!
However, now that the horrifying outlay of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is set, we have Lale and Gita enmeshed in a love story against a near improbable ‘happily ever after’.
Apart from Lale and Gita, the other character that stays with you is ‘Cilka’, a friend of Gita living in the same building. Cilka is distinguished from far, her child-like charm never faded even in the darkest chapters of human history. Her long hair seems to be the most intriguing aspect. Everyone around wonders why amidst women with their hair shaved off, Cilka gets to keep her long tresses. Perhaps time would tell. (Of course, the author did give Cilka a book of her own which I am yet to read)
Being a holocaust novel, based on the real-life story of Lale and Gita as inmates of the concentration camps, the book narrates the horrific details of violence, brutality, rape, gas chamber, and killings.
Having said that, I would say this book takes you in its wrap like a gentle breeze. The story indeed tells you about human grit and determination in the wake of adversity. Sometimes, a tiny straw of hope is enough to keep one going.
However, the discomfort for me in the book was Lale’s luck at meandering through his life at the camp, escaping at every wrong turn. Therefore, amidst shock and suffering, there is love, friendship, and chocolate. Lale’s trajectory of witnessing horror and then coming out of it happens more often than not. Exactly why this book receives flak for fictionalizing a bit on the pulp end than keeping it real.
Over the years, we have known more and more horrendous details about the torture dealt to the prisoners at the concentration camps. ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ rebuilds a similar world with a personal account and refrains from entering into a political or historical discourse on the subject of the Holocaust. It is one man’s story of falling in love and surviving against the despair of many. Lale does what he needs to, in order to survive inside the concentration camp and you tag along with him experiencing his story.