“You will honor them by staying alive, surviving this place and telling the world what happened here.”
There are certain periods in history that fill me with an absolute all encompassing blind rage. It should come as no surprise that one of these events was the reign of the Nazi regime in Western Europe from the years of 1933 to 1945 in which approximately six million Jews and five million other targeted groups were murdered in one of the most horrific and high profile genocides in human history. More than one million victims were children. As this is a book review, I’m not going to get too much into the history of the rise of the Nazi regime or the years leading up to Hitler’s “Final Solution,” but if you would like to read more about this topic I’d encourage you to visit this website1 for a succinct timeline of events.
In 2003, author Heather Morris met with elderly Holocaust survivor Lali Sokolov. She describes their conversation, spread over the course of 3 years, exactly as long as Lali’s tenure at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, as “simply the ramblings of an elderly gentleman.”2 He regaled her with sound bytes that weren’t even really linked in any sequential order. He was reliving and grappling with the past, and he wanted her to tell his story. He needed her to do it quickly, because he needed to be with his Gita again and was in a hurry to move along. The story she would write would become The Tattooist of Auschwitz. This is a love story at heart, but it’s also a fairly remarkable work of historical fiction that is heartbreaking and raw.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz begins with Lale Eisenberg answering the order from the government for each Jewish Slovakian family to send one individual to the “work camps.” (Clarification break: I’m not entirely sure why, but Morris chose to change the spelling of Lali’s name to Lale for the novel. After the war, Lali changed his last name to the less Jewish sounding name of Sokolov.) His brother had volunteered, but Lale refused to allow him to go. His brother had a wife and two young sons to care for, and Lale insisted as a single man it was his place to sacrifice on behalf of his family. Eventually he finds himself at one of the most infamous concentration camps of the Holocaust, Auschwitz. The course of the novel follows Lale as he fulfills his duties as the camp Tätowierer, a prisoner in charge of tattooing the numbers onto new arrivals. Through Lale, we experience life in the camp. We live the horror, the fear, the immense heartbreak, and the determination for survival. We also experience true love that blossoms in the unlikeliest of places.
There’s really not much more I can say about the plot without getting too spoiler-y, so I’ll digress and discuss something I feel to be important. In my research surrounding this book, I found articles alluding to extremely heavy criticism from historians about the events in this novel. Many details are incorrect, and many events are quite fanciful in nature, leading them to believe a large part of this narrative simply wasn’t possible. Morris has responded to these critiques by asserting that she was telling Lali’s story. If Lali said it happened, she included it. I, frankly, support her in this. Morris was not writing non-fiction. It’s within the rights of a fiction writer to take liberties with a novel. And we must remember that Lali was a very old man at the time he met Morris. He’d endured years of trauma, so could we really blame him if he got a few details wrong? Honestly, this man survived 3 years of the most unimaginable tortuous suffering, so if he had told Morris a sparkly unicorn flew over and pooped on a guard, well he earned every bit of that unicorn poop and I damn well hope she would have put it in the book. Ok, maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but you get my point.
I do love history. I do believe it’s important to be accurate, but I also believe it’s important to honor both the survivors and the dead with an emotionally honest account. This is why I love fiction so much. History is fascinating, but knowing dates and facts doesn’t encompass the actual human experience. I can know that Crematorium number 1 was put into operation at Auschwitz on August 15, 1940.3 But that isn’t nearly as powerful as the image of Lale standing outside feeling the ash, the whispered remains of human life, raining from the sky onto him and his fellow prisoners. Good historical fiction allows us to FEEL history, which is essential for the development of empathy and full understanding. Full understanding is what ensures that we never stand by and let such atrocities occur for the remainder of human history. I wish such fanciful notions were yet within our grasp, but sadly we still have a lot to learn. I know a lot of people have trouble reading books like this. I completely understand this. Frankly, I do too, and I have to mentally prepare myself for such an undertaking. I feel that Morris crafted this novel in a way that was both brutally honest and, somehow, mild enough to not be overtly traumatic. Though there is literally no way to write a novel of the Holocaust without inflicting emotional pain. If you don’t feel pain when reading such things, there is definitely something wrong with you.
My overall takeaway from the novel is that it’s a well-written and moving love story. It does well in honoring the victims of this horrible nightmare from the past. Peripheral characters are well-drawn and add to the story. We are even introduced to other real-life characters, both the brave heroes and heroines of the war and the infamous evil bastards whose cruelty bore no impediment. I don’t believe it’s a literary masterpiece, but it’s a good narrative peppered with some lyrical moments. I listened to the audio, and I feel it was well done by Richard Armitage. Eventually I wearied a bit of the breathless way he spoke Lale’s voice, but I understand why he read him this way in most instances. Where he really excelled was in the various accents of this very diverse cast of characters.
Overall, I give this novels 4 stars.
- “The Holocaust.” History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-holocaust. Publish date October 14, 2009, updated September 30, 2020. Access Date October 23, 2020.
- “Heather Morris discusses meeting Lale Sokolov.” Bonnier Publishing Australia. January 15, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70pxBGXkm9E.
- “Auschwitz-Birkenau: Crematoria & Gas Chambers.” Jewish Virtual Library. The State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/crematoria-and-gas-chambers-at-auschwitz-birkenau. Access date October 23, 2020.
Pub.date: September 4, 2018 by HarperAudio; ISBN: 198714564X; Runtime: 7 hrs, 25 mins.