Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

"SupportTattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Harper Paperbacks, 2018

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: 2/5

The last thing one expects to encounter when reading a story of the holocaust, is a concentration-camp romance, right?  But the truth of the matter is that Heather Morris shaped her fictionalized account of this holocaust romance on a true story, based on interviews with Lale Sokolov.  This is a tale of the profound and lifelong love between Lale and Gita — prisoners that met in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the WWII.

However that is not the story that I find the most compelling out of Lale’s tale, and where I part ways with Heather’s approach.  For it just becomes another romance saga, albeit set in the unlikeliest of places.

For me, the real story is in the psychology of Lale’s survival and the aftermath of the war.  More than the romance between Gita and Lale, I want to know more about the man himself.  Here is a man that was determined to survive Auschwitz.  In fact, he was willing to do just about anything to ensure he survived.  He forged relationships wherever possible — with local civilians, fellow prisoners, even the SS guards.  Part con artist/part savvy businessman, Lale risks torture to peddle gems and jewels taken from new arrivals, to trade for food and favors (in his defense, he shares these with his fellow prisoners).  And he becomes the Tätowierer for Auschwitz-Birkenau, tasked with painfully and permanently marking identification numbers on all of his fellow prisoners.  He does this knowing it affords him special treatments including extra rations, a private room, and protection as a member of the political wing of the SS, despite the risk of alienating himself from his fellow prisoners.

What drives someone like Lale to take these inordinate risks?  And how does he deal with the guilt (both during and after the war) of collaborating with the SS?  Morris gives us only hints as to the depth of his inner-conflict:

“I have been given the choice of participating in the destruction of our people, and I have chosen to do so in order to survive. I can only hope I am not one day judged a perpetrator or a collaborator.”

After the war, Lale and Gita retreat to Melbourne, where he spends the next 50+ years hiding these truths from family and friends.  How does one man reconcile his past without losing his future?  To me, that is the missed opportunity in this story.  How much more powerful would the story be as told as a biography of Lale, rather than a fictionalized romance.

But having said all that, I still encourage you to read it.  Tales of the holocaust need to be revisited, to remind us to be vigilant in stopping these horrors, that sadly sit too close to the surface even in today’s world.

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