Book Review – ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ by Heather Morris ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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“To save one is to save the world.”

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for over two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism – but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.  

One day, in late July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm.  Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Solokov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

“So many stories. So many brave people.”

This is one of those books that you can’t simply read, it reaches in and grabs your soul and immerses you completely.  Holocaust books are never easy reads, and they shouldn’t be, but it is a time in our history we should educate ourselves about and learn from. I find myself fascinated with the question of how people can commit such atrocities against other human beings in the name of faith or any kind of beliefs, but never any closer to figuring out the answer.

“I am a survivor.”

Lale is just 24 years old when the Germans order each Jewish family in his village to send a member of their family aged 18 or over to work for them.  His older brother volunteers, but Lale insists he should be the one to go as, unlike his brother, he has no wife or children. Despite obvious apprehension at where he will go and what will happen, Lale is pleased that his actions will be saving his family from being sent to a prison camp and keeping them safe. When he first arrives at Auschwitz-Birkenau he is put to work building more huts but notices that there are some prisoners with privileges and vows to get one of the positions that will offer him the greatest chance of survival. Shortly after he becomes acquainted with Pepan, the Tätowierer, who offers him a job as his apprentice.  His new position offers protection and benefits such as a bed to himself and more food to eat. Showing his generous nature, Lale immediately shares his extra rations with other prisoners. Later he begins to smuggle in food and other items, at huge risk to himself, that he also shares. When reading about these kindnesses I couldn’t help but wonder how many lives he saved.  How many people and their parents are alive today because he saved their grandparent in the camp? Lale may have had regrets about the job he was forced to do to survive but it can’t be denied how much good he did that wasn’t obligated to. I myself think taking the job was the right thing. Yes, he could be viewed as conspiring with the enemy, but someone had to do the job and he made sure to use his position to benefit many others.  I empathise with the prisoners who took jobs to gain extra rations or a better position in the camp. They were fighting for survival every second of the day and I blame no one who found a way to make that fight a little easier.

I am in shit but won’t drown, my life is too beautiful to die.”

Lale’s positive outlook is apparent from the start of the story.  He chooses to look for the good and for beauty in any and every circumstance.  I am sure that choosing to keep his positivity despite being in such a frightening and dire situation helped him to survive and enabled him to encourage others to do the same.  One thing that no doubt helped him see a brighter side to life during his time in the camp was meeting and falling in love with Gita. This story of how these two ordinary people found love and hope in the darkest of places was beautiful and shows us how if a love is true absolutely nothing can stand in its way.  The couple share clandestine meetings as much as possible while in the camp and vow to marry and live their lives together once they are free.

“If you wake up in the morning, it’s a good day.”

I would have liked to hear more about Lale’s life after the war than was included in the book, but we do find out a little about his life after the war, his struggles and triumphs, and what he was like as a parent in a small Afterward from his son.  The Authors Notes were a wonderful insight into how she came to tell his story and the man he was. It was interesting to see the pictures of him and some of the historical pictures relevant to his time in the camp. I think they were a great way to end the book and gave the reader a greater connection to Lale.

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of two ordinary people, living in an extraordinary time.”

This is a story full of opposing things: humanity and inhumanity, love and hate, and hope and despair.  It is a reminder of the horrors people experienced, but also of their ferocious will to survive and how they found happiness, friendship, and sometimes even love, during the most barbaric and odious circumstances.  It is important we are reminded of the stories of individuals as hearing the huge numbers makes it impersonal and incomprehensible. When we hear Lale’s story we can picture what he and those he knew suffered we relate to it in a real way that helps us ensure it never happens again. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a mesmerising, poignant, haunting, powerful, harrowing and beautiful novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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