The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Published by: HarperCollins
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Page Count: 288
In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.
Imprisoned for over two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.
One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.
A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.
“To save one is to save the world.”
When the Tattooist of Auschwitz first hit the blogosphere, I knew I had no chance of passing up this historical fiction. I set the bar high for it. And while I loved the imagery of hope, resilience, and survival, my expectations fizzled out by the end. I wish I loved it. But I can’t.
It is a horrifying tale of hope. With that said, I’m not entirely convinced that many facts in this novel are accurate. In fact, the Auschwitz Memorial has put doubt of the events that took place. I am not criticizing a novel about Auschwitz or the Holocaust. I am critiquing the storytelling, the authenticity of what has been told, and claims the author put into her work.
The Tattooist reads more like a piece of fiction, not a retelling of history. I struggled with reading and rating this book. Some of the context of her writing feels improbable. Unfortunately, the writing is better suited for a script, which is what Tattooist originally was before it was published as a book. I cannot confirm what is fact or what is fiction. I wish I could because there are people who still deny the Holocaust, and I believe this novel doesn’t support the past. But let’s get to the love story that inspired this novel.
Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is given the task as Tätowierer, the tattooist, who must mark all people walking through the gates of Auschwitz. There, he finds Gita, his future love. Throughout the years, they grow their budding romance while atrocities surround them. I loved their eventual love story. When you find an ounce of light during the darkest moments, it makes for an endearing romance. Everything is pitted against them: Nazis, starvation, death, murder, human experiments, genocide, and even rape. But they somehow endure it all to hold onto something so precious.
The author tells the story, not shows you, which I find disappointing. The writing itself doesn’t draw out individual voices among the crowd. And I felt as if each character gets lost in the noise. Heather does not flesh out the secondary ones at all. I wanted to learn more about these characters who suffered horrific cruelties. You uncover some glimpses of what they’ve gone through, but you’re left wanting more though. And historical details aren’t an important aspect in this historical fiction.
What the writing lacks somewhat gains in spirit though. I’ll give Lale the credit he’s due. Somehow he finds optimism in the unlikeliest of places. I was rooting for him not only to protect himself and Gita but also to survive this darkest era. He is given a duty he knows he’ll be looked down on, and yet he uses the privilege he’s received to better the lives of others.
Please don’t believe I’m heartless. I am not critiquing a Holocaust story. I question the legitimacy of the storytelling. And I hope readers understand the difference between the two. I want authentic storytelling because the world deserves the truth. The new generation needs to learn what we allowed to happen. I realize that this novel is based on a true story. However, it’s mostly a work of fiction surrounding a real-life event. I went into this tale hoping for my next favourite read. I came out with more unanswered questions.