Firstly, I’d like to mention a few things about the edition. I read the book on a Kindle, ebook published in 2018 by Zaffre, where barely 85% of the contents is the story of Lale, the Tattooist of Auschwitz. The rest of the book is filled up with notes from the author, Lale’s family members, editors; there are photographs of Lale and his wife, Gita, and others. I was unaware of these ‘extras’ at first, and as I was nearing the end of the story, I began to wonder, what else is there to happen – everything was pointing towards a happy ever after, yet the page count said I had quite a bit left to read. When I finished the story and realised what made up the final part of the book, I rolled my eyes at first at what I presumed was ‘fluff’ – and some of it I did think was content just to fill pages, yet other bits and pieces provided a much needed grounding and reasoning for the book I had just read.
Indeed, a few things which disagreed with me throughout the book were given their reasoning in these extras, the most crucial one for me being the author’s decision to simplify Lale’s story. As I was reading, I could not shake off the feeling there are things left out, stories remained undeveloped, characters who were presented only in part and others who were missing entirely. The author later explained this was a deliberate effort, that had she included everything Lale had confined in her, it would be a gigantic book, and more factual detail may detract from his feelings and experiences.
I reserve my right to politely disagree with the author. I am not scared of large readings, and whilst – as she rightly points out – factual novels, journals and documentaries about the occurrences in Auschwitz have been published in great abundance, I found the amount of omissions and therefore patchwork she has had to do too great for my personal taste.
What the author has done admirably well, in my opinion, is to get across Lale’s voice. His straightforward thoughts, his firm belief in the feelings he has, his acceptance of all the horrors he cannot change and his enduring desire to survive despite them make for a relatable and admirable man I’d like to befriend, or a character whose friend I already am. I appreciated greatly the lack of pomposity in the language used, which would have only obscured the gruesome goings on in Auschwitz.
Lale keeps his eyes firmly open, and despite going through much hardship, low morale (what an understatement this phrase is) and deprivation, he works hard to change whatever he can. His perseverance and will are inspiring, and a much needed perspective of how much a single human can accomplish despite, or even because of, terrifying challenges before him.
It is difficult to call a novel about the experiences of one man in what is known as the worst concentration camp in the history of the modern world a favourite or enjoyable, because these experiences hold much fear, terror and hatred. But they also hold love, tenderness and hope. Therefore, I am content to say I enjoyed reading Lale’s tale. I knew of the happy end before I started, and that helped me push through the worst of what he has shared with the world. I can only hope the organised horror of systematic genocide delivered by Nazi Germany to forever remain in the past, though fascism has recently begun to raise its ugly head once more. This is why I believe Lale’s story is one to be told loud and far – unlike the dry factual documentaries, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is simple, evocative and talks about events on an emotional level. I strongly encourage you to take up the book, and hope we all learn from past mistakes.
Now that I’ve had some vacation time and managed to read through several books, I can finally sit down and share my thoughts on The Tattooist of Auschwitz. As with any other book, there were some things I loved about the story and there were others, which left me wanting more.
Heather Morris tells the life story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who very soon after his arrival in Auschwitz becomes its Tattooist. Having faith that working probably won’t set him free, but is ultimately the only way to survive the harsh conditions, he starts gathering intelligence on the prisoner hierarchy and day-to-day activities in the concentration camp.
Whilst incarcerated, Lale meets the love of his life, Gita, a young Slovakian girl who falls deeply in love with him, but refuses to share any information about her family, including her surname. The Tattooist of Auschwitz provides a small glimpse into the life of the people locked in two of the most famous WWII concentration camps – Auschwitz and Birkenau.
The Magic of Simplicity
The narrative is rather straightforward, the dialogues are also short and to the point. There is a lack of fluff, which is usually prevalent in the classics or other books on the topic. Morris also admitted in the notes at the end of the book the deliberate simplification and consolidation of Lale’s stories. The main reason for this was the amount of people involved, as well as many of the little details and technicalities, which might otherwise convolute the story or leave too many loose ends.
Morris opted to summarize the essence of Lale and Gita’s life experiences into an easy to follow narrative. In addition, many of the faceless and nameless prisoners have been brought to life in the characters of Cilka, Victor and Baretski, the SS kapo in charge of the Tattooist.
You do get the feeling that the protagonist himself was describing the horrors of the concentration camp while reading the book. However, right from the start I found the use of the present tense very strange. Maybe I’m more used to reading books in past tense or talking about WWII as an event, which does not have the same effect on people’s lives today as it did when it happened. I believe this is true for the majority of humanity, as many decades have passed since the end of WWII. But there are still those who live with the memories of prosecution and genocide, as well as the reminders of the lengths at which one had to go in order to survive.
Such individual was Lale. He took the difficult decision to share his story after the death of his wife, and not long prior to his own passing, for fear of being labeled as a Nazi collaborator.
Why It Didn’t Hit Me as It Should Have
As a small disclaimer I would like to point out that my thoughts on the story do not, in any way, mean to belittle the struggles of Lale and Gita during the war. My comments are directed at the way Morris decided to share their story.
While simplicity is a better option in many cases, I had bigger expectations about the book in general. I would have loved to learn more details about the camp and the relationships other prisoners build with each other. How did the families stay together, if they were brought together? Apart from the information about the gypsy families, which were settled in Lale’s block, nothing much is revealed about other communities in the camp.
The focus of the narrative gradually shifts from how Lale helps other people to his efforts at bribing guards to have more private time with Gita. This change and the simplification of the story made it feel more about the love story rather than all the other ways Lale has contributed to the lives of the prisoners. I would have loved to have a more balanced story.
Since Gita was a major part of Lale’s life, I’m sure she also helped those around her. But then again, some might argue that the book is called The Tattooist of Auschwitz and not The Couple of Auschwitz. And it would be a fair argument. I just think it would have been interesting to learn more about Gita through her deeds, rather than just not knowing anything else about her.
Despite my expectations and personal tastes in literature, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a book about overcoming death through love, hope and compassion. It is a strong reminder of human perseverance in the face of a system designed to deprive certain communities of their most basic human rights. If you don’t mind not having all the details or reading a simple story, then I think The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a good introduction into the human aspect of WWII.
Edition Published: 2018, First Published: 2018
Language book read in: English