Happy April! I can’t believe we have reached this point in the year. January seems to be a distant memory. However, over this Easter holiday I have achieved one thing: to read plenty. I’ve chosen to review The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. This book completely took hold of me. I’d read it over two days. I couldn’t not read it. I was desperate to know what happened. However, it sounds so ridiculous but I was so scared to read it because I was terrified as to what the outcome was going to be. Prepare to be on the edge of your seat.
What’s it all about?
The novel focuses on telling the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who spent three years in Auschwitz. However, it isn’t like the other Holocaust novels. This novel focuses on love, hope and survival. The amazing Heather Morris spent time with Lale gathering experiences to create this book. Boy, what an absolute treasure it is.
Lale knew exactly what was in store for him on that fateful day he was taken to Auschwitz. Luckily Lale landed a job as a tattooist, a job that gave him a slither of protection. Whilst doing this job, he meets a range of different people; one in particular catching his eye and changing his world forever.
‘Her eyes, however, dance before him. Looking into them his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, almost threatening to burst out of his chest.’
We see Lale travel to Auschwitz in a cattle cart with numerous people around him. You can imagine the sight, the smells and the sense of fear through the description. On his arrival to the camp he is stripped, searched and put into the striped uniform. During the cold, harsh nights, Lale sees people being shot for needing the toilet, one of whom is a child. It is at this moment that Lale makes a decision.
‘As they disappear into the darkness, Lale makes a vow to himself. I will leave this place. I will walk out a free man.’
There was a moment when my heart was in my mouth and I thought Lale wouldn’t make it. Actually, there were more than one. The first was when Lale got Typhus. As many historical accounts say, the sick were merely cast aside or shot. They were of no use as they couldn’t work. But in a tale of true heroism, many people saved him; the majority nameless. Pepan, a Tattooist, continues to look after him whenever he can along with those from Block 7.
“A young man was pleading with the SS to leave you, saying that he would take care of you. When they went into the next block he pushed you off the cart and started dragging you back inside.”
Not only did Pepan help save his life, he offered another lifeline: a job. Lale becomes a Tattooist with him. He can speak many languages which appeals to the officers. Yet tattooing causes a moral problem for Lale. He doesn’t wish to inflict harm on any other human being but he wants to survive. More than that, he wants to help others. Pepan reminds him of what an opportunity this is.
“I saw a half-starved young man risk his life to save you. I figure you must be someone worth saving.”
One huge reason why Lale survives is arguably because of Gita. With the help of an officer he finds which block she is in. This is the beginning of something beautiful after all. Despite the despair and daily horrors around him and many others in that situation, he tries to be friendly to everyone. He strikes a deal with Victor and Yuri who are working on the roof. They smuggle him food which he saves and passes around his friends. He asks the girls to keep looking for jewels so he can use them to repay the kindness of Victor. Of course, if any of them were caught, they’d be killed.
‘Victor closes his hand over Lale’s in a handshake, palming the jewels. Lale’s bag is already open and Victor quickly transfers some packages into it. Their alliance is now sealed.’
One of the most remarkable thing about this novel is the notion of hope. Lale is always hopeful about leaving; something he passes onto those he meets, especially Gita. Lale is completely in love with her. He goes out of his way to see her, strikes up a deal with officers in which chocolate plays a key role and they have beautiful, blissful moments together.
“There will be a tomorrow for us…We will survive and make a new life where we are free to kiss where we want to…”
Things take a turn for the worst when Lale’s stash is discovered. Rather fortunately (because once again my heart was in my mouth) Lale’s earlier kindness keeps him alive. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop him getting a severe beating. Everyone must do what needs to be done to survive in a place like that. This is just another example of that.
“You were kind to me and I will make the beating look worse than it is, but I will kill you before I let you tell me a name.”
The monotony of daily life at the camp is broken up. There is a sense of urgency as we proceed through the novel. It’s not just survival, it is a change in the atmosphere. Clearly something is happening to make the camp a hive of activity. People are coming to save them. It is at this point I probably felt most uncomfortable. Will they ever see each other again? Who will survive? What happens next? I was reading this and only noticed at the end just how tightly I was holding onto the book.
‘Whatever happens tomorrow will happen to all of them – together they will live or die.’
As they are all separated, the narrative almost splits. We see the girls taken away with many falling at the sides. We see Lale end up in a new role – providing nice girls for the soldiers, a role in which he is possibly even less comfortable than before. He pockets some jewels and finally decides to get freedom: a train to Bratislava. The whole time his thoughts are consumed with Gita. It takes two weeks but amazingly, thanks to the Red Cross, he finds her.
‘Then, with Gita’s arms around Lale’s waist and her head resting on his shoulder, they walk away, merging into the crowded street, one young couple among many in a war-ravaged city.’
It has been a long time since I’ve hung onto every word written in a book. I have probably never felt so much hope either. I bought and read this book with great trepidation. I find these events so utterly horrific and yet even though these were in the book, the overwhelming feeling is of hope. It is a remarkable story in every sense. Right until Gita’s death, Lale wanted to protect her, hence why the book wasn’t even written let alone published. Lale is a truly magnificent person and Heather Morris has done an amazing job in telling his story. Read this book; it will change your life.
Big love xx