“In 1942, Lale Sokolov arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival – scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust.
Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale – a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer – it was love at first sight. And he was determined not only to survive himself, but to ensure this woman, Gita, did too.
So begins one of the most life-affirming, courageous, unforgettable and human stories of the Holocaust: the love story of the Tattooist of Auschwitz.”
I read this book within two days as I found it captivating and moving. Based on a true story, the author Heather Morris’s research and conversations with Lale have provided the basis of a powerful story.
At 24, Lale was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and became the Tätowierer. This granted him a private room, extra rations and the freedom to walk around unaccompanied unlike the rest of the prisoners. He uses these privileges to help others as he hands out his extra rations. He takes the job so someone crueller would not. Lale’s history and role in the Holocaust haunted him throughout his life, as he was concerned people would view him and Gita as collaborators. As Morris states in her author notes, it took a while for Lale to reveal his whole story:
“It took time before he was willing to embark on the deep self-scrutiny that parts of his story required…our lives became entwined as he shed the burden of guilt he had carried for more than fifty years, the fear that he and Gita might be seen as Nazi collaborators.”
Morris originally wrote the story as a screenplay, and sometimes it does show in the writing. In parts, it is sparse and blunt with a colloquial tone. However, this lends itself well to the nature of the book as it suggests it was inspired by Lale’s own voice. Many critics have commented on how the horror of Auschwitz and the Holocaust are glossed over. Whilst this is true, I believe the detachment Morris implements serves to show how Lale’s mind has seen many horrors but it is the love story of him and Gita that is the real story he wants to share. I didn’t find that the emotional distance meant I couldn’t connect with the characters as I found Lale’s decisions fascinating and brave under his horrific circumstances. The simplicity of the narrative can also be applied to how many Holocaust survivers are reluctant to tell their story and find it difficult.
The story is a tale of imprisonment and brutality, but ultimately it is the story of Lale and Gita’s love. I found the most captivating element of the story the fact that they managed to fall in love in the midst of a terrifying period of history. The ending was hopeful and promising for humanity. The addition of Morris’s author notes and photographs of Lale and Gita also added to the power of the story, reminding us of the history behind it.
I think it is difficult to find the right words to convey the tragedy and horror of the Holocaust and what happened at Auschwitz. Morris does not claim to achieve this but her telling of this story is rooted in the truth of Lale’s story and demonstrates how in this instance, love overpowered hate.