Geek book review: In Defense of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz”

by Heather Morris. Harper, 2018

Geek rate: Sky god worthy (5 out of 5 stars)

It was World War II. In 1942, Lale Sokolov’s story began as he rides inside a cattle train, a ride that will take him to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp that was a witness to the worst and the best of humankind.

This widely acclaimed novel is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov. In April 1942, Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

There are many books narrating the horrors of the holocaust but the most heartbreaking of them were the ones told by the victims themselves. “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is special in a way because it serves as a lasting voice of a prisoner whose story was told so that we would not forget.

The train tracks leading to the gate of Auschwitz concentration camp.

I was wary at first on reading this book. The amount of energy you would need to read a story such as this is different from let say reading a young adult novel. You need to prepare yourself, emotionally. I delved on, knowing full well the story, but this time on a different perspective. The first few pages were slow for me, having read countless accounts of such things which happened to Lale, but there is something dark and vivid in this recollection that made the words stood out in every pages: the way the sight and smell and sound inside the cattle train was told, the feel of the Russian uniform that was several sizes too big, or the pain of being tattooed against your own will.

“‘You want me to tattoo other men?’
“‘Someone has to do it.’
“‘I don’t think I could do that. Scar someone, hurt someone — it does hurt, you know.’
“Pepan pulls back his sleeve to reveal his own number. ‘It hurts like hell. If you don’t take the job, someone will who has less soul than you do, and he will hurt these people more.’”

There was a reason about the absence of this story years after the end of World War II. Author Heather Morris tells us at the end of the book the very reason why:

“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 might be seen as Nazi collaborator.”

But Lale’s story is not the story of a collaborator but one who used his position to helped others, much like Oscar Schindler. He had bolstered not only his own chance of survival, but also the survival of those around him. Saving one man’s life at a time, means saving mankind as the saying goes.

But what makes this story unique among the holocaust stories that I have read is that there’s an element of love story, which is front and center in the book. There were critics that would say the love story between Lale and Gita diverts the horror of the holocaust. But it is the same with the argument that Lale, as well as, the story of Oscar Schindler, do not reflect the true picture of the horrors of the holocaust, because in part, they were collaborators, and their misery, were less than the other victims. The critics missed the point: it is not important who was telling the story, or what part they partake in that moment in history. What’s important is that they told the story, for us to listen to, and learn from.

Lale and Gita arrived in Sydney. (Courtesy of the Sokolov Family)

Questions about authenticity

It is just typical to question the authenticity of the book but to focus on it is to do a disservice to Lale and to the very purpose of this book: to make the story of the victims of holocaust heard beyond their graves.

But there are those voices too who will not rest until this part of history is erased. Therefore, it is important for stories such as Lale’s to be infallible. But the infallibility of stories lie not on their perfection but on their authenticity. This book, the “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” has an authentic voice and an important story to tell, a story that no historical revisionist can destroy. With books like this, the future generations will know the story of Lale and the other survivors of different forms of atrocities. With Lale’s story, we will never forget.

To delve into the details of the book’s questionable parts (the prisoner number, the penicillin, the football game) is a waste of time. What I want to raise is the choice of making this book a fiction rather than a non-fiction one. I understand that the book needs to sell but making this kind of story a non-fiction is much more effective.

Geek Rate

zeus-512Sky god worthy (5 out of 5 stars): There are stronger stories about the holocaust and the fact that it was not written by the narrator and it was turned as a non-fiction take a toll on the overall feel of the story, but genuine desire of Lale to tell the world the horrors of his experience makes the book a powerful novel.

Side note: As someone who has read countless of World War II books and is aware of the dates and time of the various events, the latter parts of the book made my heart beat faster. The events leading to the end of the camp as the Russians were nearing the town where it stood, was for me, the most memorable pages of the book. And the most eye opening. I wasn’t aware that there were efforts to murder the remaining prisoners as the Russians closed by. I just assumed the Germans just left the prisoners there.

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