The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. (Harper, 2018)
Twelve million civilians died in the death camps in Europe during World War II. Six million victims were of the Jewish faith; the other six millions were comprised of political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, Catholics, and the mentally and physically handicapped. For each of those 12 million people, extraordinary stories of pain and suffering, heroism and resistance against evil can be told. In fact, it seems that every time I go to Barnes and Noble, several new titles about the Holocaust have appeared in print. Most of these books are written as memoirs, and while the stories may be compelling, they are not necessarily written to stand as literary works.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is the best Holocaust book that I have read since The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Although the characters of the novel are based on a couple who survived the horrors of Auschwitz, Morris chose to present the story as a non-fiction novel, which really worked as the literary vehicle by which to tell this story. I actually read this book in one sitting because I could not put it down.
The central plot is a love story between a young man named Lale, who due to his prowess at speaking several languages, has been made theTatowierer (tattooist) at Auschwitz. Because he is able to communicate with so many of the prisoners who are waiting in long lines to have the prisoner identification numbers branded onto their arms, Lale keeps the crowd moving all the time, which satisfies the Germans quest for efficiency.
One day in July 1942, Lale observes a man in a white coat surveying the row of young women who are waiting to be tattooed. The man is obviously looking for something specific and grabs hold of the face of the young woman next in line to be tattooed. Terrified, she looks at Lale who does his best to comfort her as he completes burning the numbers into her arm. We are told, “When he has finished, he holds onto her arm for a moment longer than necessary, looking again into her eyes. He forces a small smile. She returns a smaller one. Her eyes, however, dance before him. As he looks into them, his heart seems simultaneously to stop and to begin beating for the first time, pounding, almost threatening to burst out of his chest. He looks down at the ground and it sways beneath him.” (p. 49)
Although he does not know the prisoner’s name, Lale cannot stop thinking about her, and searches for her as he wanders through the camp, until eventually they do meet again. Lale’s attraction to Gita, as he learns that she is named, is returned, and there amidst the worst horrors perpetrated on the human race since the beginning of time, love takes root as the two struggle to find ways to be with each other under the most harrowing of experiences.
A question posed frequently to survivors of the Holocaust is “Why do you think you were spared?” The great writer, Elie Wiesel, who suffered greatly from survivor’s guilt, maintained that he survived in order to tell the stories of what he had seen, and to bear witness to the brutality that he had experienced in the camps. In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the complex and beautifully drawn character of Lale, reiterates to his love, Gita, that they must survive their ordeal in order to celebrate their love in freedom and joy. He continues to inspire Gita to endure for love’s sake, despite every hardship that comes their way.
The story of lovers trying to survive the starvation, filth, and cruelty imposed upon them is uplifting and compelling. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a book that you will recommend to others as worthwhile reading.