Saturday, 24 April 2021

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Paperback, 320 pages
Published 27th January 2017 by Zaffre

adult-fiction, death, historical, non-fiction, read, read-in-2020, realistic-fiction, really-good, series-or-companions, ww2, zaffre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Description via Goodreads:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz and eventually made their home in Australia. In that terrible place, Lale was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival - literally scratching numbers into his fellow victims' arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Lale used the infinitesimal freedom of movement that this position awarded him to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep others alive. If he had been caught, he would have been killed; many owed him their survival.

There have been many books about the Holocaust - and there will be many more. What makes this one so memorable is Lale Sokolov's incredible zest for life. He understood exactly what was in store for him and his fellow prisoners, and he was determined to survive - not just to survive but to leave the camp with his dignity and integrity intact, to live his life to the full. Terrible though this story is, it is also a story of hope and of courage. It is also - almost unbelievably - a love story. Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale - a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer - it was love at first sight, and he determined not only to survive himself but to ensure that Gita did, too. His story - their story - will make you weep, but you will also find it uplifting. It shows the very best of humanity in the very worst of circumstances.

Like many survivors, Lale and Gita told few people their story after the war. They eventually made their way to Australia, where they raised a son and had a successful life. But when Gita died, Lale felt he could no longer carry the burden of their past alone. He chose to tell his story.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a very difficult book for me to review, simply due to the controversy surrounding it and my fear of offending anybody who does oppose it. I can understand and respect both opinions regarding this novel, but as a work of fiction, I found it to be an interesting and enjoyable read.

As a disclaimer, I would like to clarify the following - Whilst the novel states that it's based on a true story as well as a lot of research, the Auschwitz Memorial have also stated that the book "the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements". As someone who has a special interest in the Holocaust (Auschwitz-Birkenau in particular) and spends a lot of time reading and researching the subject, when reading this book I was well aware that some of the portrayal did not seem completely genuine, though I can easily understand how many readers are influenced into thinking, or at least hoping, that this is an authentic recollection of events during World War II. I would like to emphasise that, as stated by the author herself, this is a work of fiction, only loosely based on changing memories from a survivor. 

As a fictional story, I found The Tattooist of Auschwitz to be as entertaining as a story about the Holocaust can be. The storyline kept me gripped from start to finish - I really didn't want to put the book down and my attention never waned. Despite the subject matter, the story was a lot more 'sanitised' than other books regarding the Holocaust and, so, easier to read than other books on the subject - though that is not to discount that was still a good sense of some of the conditions, emotions and situations that people had to deal with during that time. Whilst the story is clearly romanticised at many points it still manages to portray Auschwitz as a 'Hell on Earth' in which survival was key.

I enjoyed the storyline of the book very much and from that alone, it's easy to see why this book has become so popular. From the writing, it's quite clear that Morris has been a screenwriter before an author - whilst the story being told is great, the writing lacks any real complexity and there is, unfortunately, never much build up or suspense. I think that if more time was spent on enhancing the prose with more description, emotion and atmosphere it could've been even better. Despite a lack of depth, I found the main character, Lale, was very likeable and charming. I appreciated the afterword and photographs at the end of the book - this gave some more factual details about the man Lale was based on and also information regarding his romantic interest, Gita. 

Overall, this is a fictional story of survival and love. I'd highly recommend the book for anyone who is interested in this devastating period of history or as a starting point for people who are wanting to ease themselves slowly into the subject of the Holocaust - it is only worth remembering that this wasn't the reality. Despite my faults with the writing, the story itself holds its own, so much so that I am eager to read the next instalment, Cilka's Journey.

1 comment:

  1. There's always a fine line between fact and fiction, especially when it comes to a book like this one. I'm glad you were able to enjoy it for what it is.


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