The Tattooist of Auschwitzt

Book Review

Author : Heather Morris

Genre : Biographical Fiction

Publisher : Echo/ Bonnier Publishing Australia

Year of Publication : 11th January 2018

Number of Pages : 194

My Rating :4 out of 5

The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been on my ‘to-be-read‘ list for a while. To be honest, it has stayed so long on my TBR list because I really did not want to read a story about the horrors of the Holocaust, having never read one before. The movies and documentaries I watched on the subject gave me quite a chill! I still kept coming across it everywhere, so my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to read it.

This is Heather Morris’ debut novel, originally written as a screenplay before being reworked as a novel. The book has received international acclaim with four million copies sold worldwide (according to Amazon). In the midst of all this success, there has also been some controversy surrounding the book.

This is the story of Lale Sokolov, originally known as Ludwig Eisenberg. It is April 1942 when Lale leaves his home in Slovakia. The German government has demanded that each Jewish family provide an adult child to work for them. Failure to do this will lead to the whole family being sent to a concentration camp. To save his family from this fate, Lale presents himself to the Germans for service, believing his family back home will be safe.

On the gate at Auschwitz are the words ‘Work will make you free’. Lale ponders the meaning of this phrase. A number is tattooed on his arm. He soon learns the true nature of life at Auschwitz where a simple misstep can lead to the loss of a life.

Fortunately for Lale, he gets appointed as a Tätowierer, whose job is to tattoo other prisoners. This puts him in a protected and advantaged position but also at risk of being considered a collaborator, since he now works for the political wing of the SS.

He meets Gita as he tattoos her arm and immediately feels a connection with her. They start a relationship that endures until they separately leave Auschwitz and find each other back home in Slovakia. Heather Morris wrote Lale’s and Gita’s story from Lale’s recollections, more than sixty years after the events had transpired. Lale told her the story after Gita had passed away.

Gita and Lale

I liked the author’s writing style. The story is well written and easy to follow. I was able to easily picture the events as they happened and follow Lale’s thoughts as he lived through the traumatic events. The horror of life at the concentration camp – fear, devastation and suffering – are laid bare in a manner that made me feel like I was watching the events unfold through the characters’ eyes.

Yet in the midst of all that is a powerful story of the resilience of human beings, their ability to survive brutal events and remain hopeful, even when surrounded by suffering and death. Their ability to fall in love and trust that they can build a relationship.

It would have been easy for the characters to just give up but throughout the book, the desire to overcome their circumstances was evident. It amazed me how Lale and Gita were able to find one another and develop such a close bond in such restrictive and devastating surroundings when their future was so uncertain.

Although I really doubted the authenticity of some of their encounters given my (admittedly limited) knowledge of concentration camps, I rooted for them and admired Lale’s determination to be with his beloved. Most of all, I marveled at his courage and ingenuity.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 and recommend it to anyone who loves stories about overcoming adversity. It would have been a 5 but for some discussions I came across online, which resonated with me, given some of my misgivings about the book.

Controversy

Given the historical significance of the Holocaust, any story that is centered on it is bound to attract a lot of attention. Some researchers have questioned the accuracy of some of the details in the book and have stated that some of the events that have been described could not have happened.

Critics have been concerned that readers may take the story as a source of knowledge about life at Auschwitz – Birkenau. In as much as the author clearly states that she changed some facts to further the plot, the story is described as being ‘based on a true story’ and a lot of readers connected with the story because of this.

When questioned about this, the author stated that she wrote “a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust.” She told the New York Times that ;-  “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.”

My Take on this

This made me ponder on whether writers of historical fiction have an obligation to accurately depict historical events in their books. Is it not true that inaccuracies can mislead and leave readers with a wrong impression of events?

Is it enough for authors to state that their stories are fictional and expect readers not to assume all the historical events are as they happened? What is the line between the fictional and the historical bit? And what is biographical fiction anyway?

I think critics here were so concerned because this is described as a book about real people in a real place at a real time in history. A very sensitive time and place. This would therefore lead most readers to expect the story to be mostly true. And it should be.

How much artistic license do you think an author has when they claim that a novel is based on a true story? Shouldn’t they at the very least get the actual known historical events correct? Let me know!  

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