After seeing so many positive reviews for The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I decided that this was one book that I absolutely had to read. After the first few paragraphs I knew that this one was going to be hard to put down, and the result was that I accidentally ended up turning the final page at 2:00 AM… on a school night! If you love exceptional writing and historical fiction, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Title: The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
Publisher: Bonnier Publishing Australia
Expected Publication Date: February 1, 2018
Genre: Fiction, YA Fiction, Historical Fiction, Based on a True Story
Themes: WWII, Survival, Holocaust, Concentration Camps, Love, Family
Features: Archival Photographs, Afterward by Gary Sokolov
My Rating: 5/ 5
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. Publisher’s Summary
Poignant and powerful, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the kind of book that wends itself around your heartstrings and moves you like a marionette. Yet, despite the darkness of the subject matter, and the knowledge that this novel is based on actual events, there is always an element of hope and determination that keeps it from being the kind of read that absolutely destroys you.
Morris does an incredible job of capturing the fleeting nature of both life and happiness in the face of annihilation, the necessity of never losing hope, and the paradox of privilege in captivity. The matter of fact portrayal of life in Auschwitz illustrates the realities of surviving in such a dog-eat-dog environment, without romanticizing the experience. Lale’s fortitude and eternal optimism is perfectly balanced by Gita’s reluctance to hope, and his endless compassion by the inherent viciousness of their captors.
While I went into this knowing that it was a fictionalized account of Lale Sokolov’s memoirs, I was struck by the accuracy and depth of the details therein. Everything from the timeline of the gas vans to construction of the gas chambers and crematoria, Baretski shooting the lights out when drunk to the timing of the various nationalities that were witnessed at intake all aligns seamlessly with the information available. The truth of this story is all the more impactful for those familiar with the events of the Holocaust, as the text is constructed in such a way that you feel these horrors twice – first when you realize what is coming next, and then again when Lale and Gita endure these events as they come to pass.
Despite Lale’s womanizing ways, he was a character that I couldn’t help but love. It is clear that he cares deeply for those around him as he takes immeasurable risks to bring them food and comfort. The food trade, contraband market, and ability to get items in and out of the camp made for a compelling read, especially since these methods were never used for personal benefit. And regardless of the profit garnered from the relationship, the kindness of Victor (and others) was like a beacon in the storm. Knowing that this account was based on memories, it is uplifting to see the kindness of those forced to participate in these terrible acts remembered honestly and fondly.
And that depiction on Dr. Mengele, shut the front door! My skin crawled every times he graced the pages. Yet, we know he was a million times worse in person from survivor accounts and war crimes testimony. There was nothing more uncomfortable than reading Lale’s experiences in Mengele’s laboratory, or Leon’s, except perhaps those moments when the ash from the crematoria is raining down upon the camps and the prisoners are able to identify the people to which those ashes belonged.
Finally, I was incredibly moved by Morris’ notes and Gary Sokolov’s afterward. The presence of these bits of commentary added further weight to the story, and the family photographs of Lale and Gita hit home in providing faces beyond those that I had imagined while reading. I appreciated Lale’s desire to have his story heard by an outsider without baggage, and truly feel that Morris has captured and retold this story with the utmost respect.
Would I recommend this story? A million times yes! This is a story that not only needs to be read, but it’s one that we can not afford to forget. It is moving, emotional, gritty, and most importantly, real.
Many thanks to Heather Morris and Bonnier Publishing Australia for proving an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.