Fiction – hardcover; Zaffre; 288 pages; 2018.
I’ve read a lot of Holocaust novels in my time (and quite a few this year, it would seem), but The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, is a rarity: it’s about finding love in the most hellish of places and ends on such a joyous note it’s hard not to be deeply affected by it.
It is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Jew from Slovakia, who was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942.
Here, Lale is ordered by SS officers to tattoo numbers on the arms of his fellow prisoners, a horrid task he finds deeply upsetting to carry out. But the privileged position of Tätowierer — the tattooist — affords him specific “luxuries” (a room of his own, for instance, and extra rations) and gives him access to certain areas of the camp, which means he can exchange money and jewels stolen from Jews for much-needed food to keep others alive.
Love affair behind the razor wire
Lale, it seems, is a bit of a wheeler and dealer, a cheeky chap with a ready smile and a willingness to help others, but he’s also a romantic. One day, in the queue of new arrivals waiting to be tattooed, stands a frail young woman called Gita. Lale scratches ink into her arm and falls quietly in love.
The novel traces Lale’s courtship of Gita, who was sent to nearby Birkenau, and their subsequent love affair conducted via smuggled letters and clandestine visits outside her block.
Some two years later, when Gita is shipped out of the camp, Lale thinks he will never see her again, but events conspire otherwise. The circumstances of their coming together in the immediate aftermath of the war are nothing short of miraculous — and it would be a hard-hearted reader indeed who did not feel deeply moved by their reunion. I finished this book with tears coursing down my face — not from sadness, but from joy.
A secret brought out into the open
The circumstances in which The Tattooist of Auschwitz was written are no less miraculous. Lale’s son Gary wanted someone to tell his parent’s story. He introduced writer Heather Morris to his father, who was then in his late 80s and living in Melbourne, Australia, where he and Gita had married and settled down to start a family and run their own business.
Over the course of three years, Morris visited Lale two or three times a week to hear his tale, which he’d kept secret for more than 50 years. When Lale died in 2006, Morris hoped to turn his story into a film. More than a decade later, she transformed the screenplay into a novel, and it’s been a bestseller ever since.
It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s heartfelt and the writing style, simple and to the point, moves the story along at a good pace. There are vivid descriptions of the horror and misery of the camps, but this is juxtaposed by small acts of kindness and resistance. It’s a story that shows that even in the darkest of places good things can happen and, as clichéd as this sounds, love can conquer all.
You can read more about the book and Lale’s life in this article on the BBC News website.
This is my 5th book for #AWW2018