Book review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

(image courtesy publisher)

For all the beauty, love and grandeur of which humanity is capable, there is also a frightening capacity for evil on a horrifying scale.

Nowhere has this dark part of our collective soul been more terribly expressly that in the Holocaust when the Nazis murdered six million Jews (along with tens of thousands of other groups such as Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals) from 1940 through to 1945 (though the persecution, on an society-wide scale began much earlier).

It is impossible to look at this period and see anything but barbaric cruelty and murderous hatred on an industrial scale but in The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris beautifully highlights that love and beauty did manage to find their way into circumstances that seemed utterly inimical to their expression.

No one, of course, was more surprised by this that the subjects of the story, real-life couple Lale Sokolov (Eisenberg pre-war) and the love of his life, Gita, Slovakian Jews who not only meet in Auschwitz-Birkenau but managed to forge a relationship that lasted well beyond the end of the year.

Theirs is a grand love story but, gleaned from countless interviews with Lale between 2003 and 2006 who was driven to recount his wartime experiences so that his beautiful Gita would be given an appropriate lasting memorial, it is told in ways that both acknowledge the evil that flourished around it, the powerful tenacity of their enduring bond, and the ways in which they did what they had to to survive.

“An advantage of being Tätowierer is that Lale knows the date. It is written on the paperwork he is given each morning and which he returns each evening. It is not just the paperwork which tells him that. Sunday is the only day of the week the other prisoners are not forced to work … It is on a Sunday when he sees her. He recognises her at once. They walk towards each other, Lale on his own, she with a group of girls, all with shaven heads, all wearing the same plain clothing. There is nothing to distinguish her except for those eyes. Black – no, brown. The darkest brown he’s ever seen. For the second time they peer into each other’s souls. Lale’s heart skips a beat. The gaze lingers.” (P. 52)

The reason this tale is so grounded, and doesn’t succumb to inspiration-itis is simple, notes Morris in a postscript that follow this moving real-life tale of love against titanically-evil odds.

“As the teller of Lale’s story, it became important for me to identify how memory and history sometimes waltz in step and sometimes strain to part, to present not a lesson in history, of which there are many, but a unique lesson in humanity. Lale’s memories were, on the whole, remarkably clear and precise. They matched my research into people, dates and places. Was this a comfort? Getting to know a person for whom such terrible facts had been a lived reality made them all the more horrific. There was no parting of memory and history for this beautiful old man – they waltzed perfectly in step.” (P. 264)

In other words, even Lale himself, a man who would have had every right to editorialise his and Gita’s grand love affair as a way of demonstrating the overpowering potency of love, chose instead to present what happened in the horror of the moment.

He did not stint on his recollection of the great love he had for Gita, a love that drove him to walk a dangerous line between working for the camp apparatus as the “Tetovierer” and working hard for the greater welfare of the people in the camp, but he is circumspect in the circumstances in which it occurred.

There is no romaniticising of anything in The Tattooist of Auschwitz which never strays from the idea that what took place in that camp and at countless other places in the Third Reich, was evil of the most heinous, calculatingly nightmarish kind.

Heather Morris (image courtesy official Heather Morris Facebook page)

Lale, who lived this reality, as Morris notes, was obviously all too aware of this but even though he recounts the horrors visited upon him and countless others with chilling honesty, he is open about how transformative his love for Gita, and her love back form him, was in surviving an ordeal which robbed so many of a future.

Meeting Gita, who worked in an area that processed all the possessions stolen off arriving camp inmates, including the jewels and money they had brought with them to survive an uncertain future, impelled Lale to not only use his privileged position to look after her and her friends, but a great many others including the Roma and a number of other individuals such as his assistant Leon and Jakob, and his fellow bunkmates, none of whom would have survived without his assistance.

Did it cost a great deal?

It absolutely did, but what is interesting as you read the The Tattooist of Auschwitz is how matter of factedly he relates much of what happened to him.

This is not to say he is dispassionate, far from it, but from the moment he steps off the crowded cattle car trains, he is aware that these camps are a whole other magnitude of evil and that surviving it, if that is even possible, is not something that is going to come without significant compromises, and a somewhat removed sense of self that must find a way to accommodate these compromises (and hopefully, as he successfully does, find ways to ameliorate and subvert them).

“Lale stops outside the Gypsy camp, watching the children run around. Several of them look at him, trying to make sense of his return. The Tätowierer, they have been told, is dead. One of them runs to Lale, throwing his arms around his waist, hugging him tight, welcoming him ‘home’. The others join in, and before long adults are coming out of the block to greet him. ‘Where have you been?’ they ask. ‘Are you injured?’ He deflects all their questions.” (P. 188)

A dapper ladies man who longed to encounter the kind of lasting love for which mother prepared him, Lale is as surprised as anyone to meet the love of his life, and realising his great luck in a place where precious little of its exists, he works as hard as he can, as does Gita, to preserve and grow it.

What touches you deeply about The Tattooist of Auschwitz, especially in an age when fascism and white supremacist thinking is on the rise, is how powerfully this beautiful but simply told tale – it is testament both to Lale and Morris’s exemplary writing that so much powerful emotion emerges from such an admirably unadorned story – provide reassurance that the very best of humanity can survive and flourish among the very worst of it.

It’s a lesson that is all the more powerful because the great evil that gave birth to places like Auschwitz is not minimised in any way, nor is Lale and Gita’s love overplayed; rather their entire story, both the intrinsic good of it and the horrors in which it took place, are presented as honestly and truthfully as could hope for, proving all the more impacting because of it.

It’s this authenticity and lack of needless embellishment of any of the aspects of this remarkable story that make The Tattooist of Auschwitz such a moving, immersively enthralling read – it says, time and again, that it is possible to find beauty in even the most horrific of places but that even so, we should all aim to ensure that the very best of who we are is never imperilled by the very worst ever again.

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