The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Heather Morris
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2018 (read Apr. 2020 on Audible)

This was supposed to be my book club pick for March, but then of course our meeting was cancelled and I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a holocaust book during a global pandemic. We’ve rescheduled our book club meeting so I decided to give the audiobook a go since I’ve been struggling with paperbacks recently, but have been doing a lot of jigsaws. This was definitely the way to go and a flew through this short book and my latest jigsaw in a single weekend.

Aside from the whole pandemic thing, I still wasn’t really looking forward to reading this because I’ve read a lot of holocaust books over the years and though there’s many great and emotional books on the topic, after reading so many books about the camps I find not a lot of new content offered anymore, so it’s just easier not to read such upsetting works.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz does offer a point of view I haven’t seen before, that of a Jewish prisoner conscripted to work as the tatowierer who inks all of the prisoners with their number when they enter the camps. It was an interesting story in that is was told from the point of view of someone who received preferential treatment in the camps. Lale was spared from physical labour and given his own room in one of the camp blocks. He didn’t have to report for roll calls and so was able to move about the camp a lot easier than many other prisoners would have been able to. He uses this privilege to build up a bit of an underground trade. The girls who go through the prisoners clothing provide him with jewels, which he trades for extra food. Building up a stockpile which he shares with other prisoners and uses to cash in on favours.

Unfortunately this book made me really uncomfortable, but not in the way you might expect a holocaust story to make one feel uncomfortable. I feel like I might be a bit callous in critiquing a story such as this one, but there were 3 issues I had with the story.

First of all, on Lale’s first night in the camp, he is stunned to see two men shot and killed for sport by the Nazis while using the bathroom. Upon witnessing this act, he vows that he will do whatever it takes to survive the camp. That’s all good and I admire his tenacity, but Morris revisits this theme several times throughout the novel and I felt like I was supposed to believe that Lale survived Auschwitz out of sheer force of character. This was not the case – he relies heavily on the kindness of others, which he takes advantage of to improve his own situation and that of those he cares about. But on more than one occasion his life is saved by other individuals. This in itself isn’t a big deal, but pushing the narrative that Lale’s grit is what enabled his survival is belittling to all the people that didn’t make it out of the camps. Grit and determination have literally nothing to do with surviving the atrocities of a concentration camp. Lale traded on the kindness of others and was incredibly lucky. I don’t find any fault in Lale’s actions, but let’s just call it what it is.

The second issue that bothered me, and what made this an uncomfortable read for me, was the love story between Lale and Gita. I can’t say I’ve ever read a love story set in a holocaust camp. I’ve read so many beautiful holocaust stories in which love is the central theme, but definitely not a ‘meet and fall in love in a camp’ story. Again, the idea of a couple falling in love in a concentration is not that unbelievable – this is based on the true story of real life couple Lale and Gita, so it obviously happened, but the writing about the love story just made me soooo uncomfortable.

Like I said, I believe two individuals could fall in love in a camp. Under unthinkable emotional trauma, it would be natural to seek comfort and reassurance from those around you. To be brought together by your shared experience and build a deep and lasting bond of trust and understanding. I didn’t struggle to believe that Gita would fall in love with Lale, he looked after her most basic needs, found her better work, food, and medication, and provided emotional support through a traumatic experience. But please don’t try and portray this relationship as sexy. Lale and Gita were both victims of their situation and I really think the author grossly romanticized their relationship. I know this is based on a true story, but it’s also based on one man’s 70 year old memories. Maybe this is the way Lale remembered his experience, but this is still “fiction” and the author has a duty to question how those memories may have been manipulated an warped over the years to block out a traumatic experience.

I find it hard to believe that after living several years in a concentration camp, being beaten and starved, that anyone would use a chocolate bar to try and seduce someone. In general I just couldn’t help but cringe at all of the romance scenes. Especially how Lale talked about women – how “all women are beautiful” and you have to take care of women, and what a womanizer he was. It was so eye-rolling, but again, obvious that it was probably lifted straight from her interview with Lale. Of course an old man who grew up in the 1930’s would talk like that, but nothing about it felt genuine or reflective of how Lale actually might have felt in 1942.

But this is just one example of the ways in which I struggled to buy into the story and felt Morris’ should have taken more artistic license in how she told it. Everything about Lale’s experience seemed to be romanticized. How easy it was for him to trade in diamonds and food, how he was able to manipulate almost everyone around him to get what he wanted, how no part of the camp was closed off to him and he could pretty much just do and go where ever he wanted, how easy it was for him to survive an interrogation without breaking down, and then just pick up the pieces of his fabricated life in the camp once he was released again. I don’t disbelieve that this was the account Morris’ received from Lale, but again, it’s where your duty to history and the reader comes in to question the authenticity of those experiences and how your portrayal of a concentration camp might read to those who have lived through similar, though very different experiences. I felt the author failed to portray the horror of the concentration camps, which should really be the easiest part of the story.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz reminded me a lot of another WWII book I read a few years ago, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. Both are fascinating stories in themselves, but both books were inspired by late-in-life interviews with their subjects. In both books I think the authors rely too heavily on the source material from their interviewees and somehow fail to connect to their characters on an emotional level.

Which brings me to my final point. This book was poorly written. This is more a flawed chronological account of Lale’s 3 years in the camps than a meaningful piece of historical fiction. Morris relies heavily on dialogue and plot to carry her story, but misses out on any kind of characterization. Somehow an emotional story of 3 terrible years in concentration camps lacks in any real emotional connection. Now obviously this is a personal opinion. I know a lot of people really loved this and connected with Lale, so it makes me feel like a bit of troll saying that I didn’t feel anything from a holocaust story, but I just felt that Morris didn’t give these characters the humanity they deserved. Her writing style is very detached and as such, I always felt detached as well. The story just seemed to be “and then he did this and then he said this and then she did that”. It was just kind of boring.

It was a story with a lot of promise, and like I said, it does show a different experience of life at Auschwitz, but I just wanted more from it. Lale is a flawed individual and I would have loved to see more exploration of how his morality was impacted by his time in the camp. He alludes a few times that he was worried he might be considered a collaborator and I would have liked to see more of that internal struggle. He was a generally selfless person and i felt he likely would also have struggled with the fact that he couldn’t help everyone and the impact having to decide who he would help might also have on him. At 250 pages, there was certainly room to better develop this story, so I was disappointed that the author decided to just retell an interview rather than do the hard emotional reflection on how this experience would impact Lale and those around him.

I think I’ll end it there. I could probably say more, but this is getting long enough. I see there’s a sequel. I am intrigued that it’s about Cilka, she is one of the characters that I probably empathized with the most and it was really upsetting to learn she was convicted as a collaborator. I’m curious if her sequel is fabricated or actually based on a real person. Anyone know? I won’t be reading it either way, but I am intrigued.

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