Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

A Holocaust story with an unexpected tone of hope, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris is the heartbreaking tale of how Lale Sokolov fell in love with a girl on whose arm he tattooed the number given to her at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and how they both survived.

A best-seller that has already been translated into 17 languages, the book skates between historical facts and fiction to spin a powerful tale of love, hope and survival.

Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who thought that he was going to work for the Germans and thus save his parents’ life, had one objective from the day he entered the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp: to survive.

“In unison, the officers flick their cigarettes up into the air, whip their rifles around, and open fire. The bodies of the three who were taking a shit are thrown back into the ditch. Lale’s breath catches in his throat. He pressed back against the building as the officers pass him. He catches the profile of one of them – a boy, just a bloody kid.

As they disappear into the darkness, Lale makes a vow to himself. I will leave this place. I will walk out a free man.”

With that aim in mind, he took on the job of the Tätowierer, charged with the dark task of tattooing incoming prisoners, a two minute task that robbed the inmates of their identity, making them mere numbers in history. The job allowed him to have improved sleeping quarters and food rations, restricted freedom of movement, as well as access to people from the outside.

Throughout his imprisonment at Auschwitz-Birkenau and even later, Lale also did whatever he could to help others survive, from saving food from his own ration, to bartering for food and other items with villagers who came to the camp to work, using jewels and money smuggled from Canada, the block where female prisoners were charged with taking out all money and jewels from the clothes of incoming prisoners. Refusing to ever give up hope, he kept reaching out to whoever he could, taking great risks to improve not only his own situation, but also that of his girlfriend, Gita, their friends and anyone who approached him.

Though he is the undeniable hero of the book, noble and courageous to the very end, as a reader, I couldn’t help but find him a bit too heroic, and a bit too lucky. There are many tales of extraordinary strength and survival of this dark period in human history, but Lale’s story seems more than a little exaggerated. It turns out that Heather Morris has taken more than a pinch of creative license, in her narration. Gita’s prisoner number has been wrongly quoted, and it seems highly improbable that Lale was able to procure penicillin for her in 1943. Though Jeffrey Archer seems to think that “they will be reading this book in 100 years time”, I wouldn’t call it a classic. A touching tale of human courage and love that survived against all odds, yes definitely. But no more than that. With its elements of an exceptionally heroic central character and high human drama, the story would be better adapted for the screen, as it was originally meant to be.

A very easy read, despite its core subject, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is the first only Holocaust novel I’ve read that didn’t leave me with a heartache. Read the book if :

  • you’re interested in the human stories of the Holocaust.
  • you’re not a stickler for accuracy in historical fiction.
  • you’re looking for a light, but not completely frivolous read for a journey, holiday or lazy day at home.

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