“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” has been receiving praise since its release in 2018, has topped the charts of both the New York Times and International Bestseller lists. It was no surprise, then, that my team chose this book for our October book club read. My month was cluttered with work trips: Each weekend, a new location, so when I found “Tattooist” for $5 at “The Last Bookstore” in Los Angeles, it remained in my carry-on and moved with me as I moved through my calendar. Finally, nestled in the crisp white sheets of my Louisville, Kentucky hotel room, I took out my read and devoured it in one sitting.
This account is inspired by true events: In 2003, author Heather Morris was introduced to an elderly gentleman named Lale Sokolov, who claimed to have “a story worth telling.” At the time, Heather was a screenwriter living in Melbourne and as the two connected, an incredibly powerful historical masterpiece evolved into first, a screenplay, and later, the book that now sits our nightstands.
The story begins in transit: Lale is riding through the countryside, packed like livestock in a train wagon with dozens of other men. Plucked from his hometown in Krompachy, Slovakia, he volunteered himself following the news that Jews in small towns were being rounded up and transported to work for the Germans. A noble act, he found peace in knowing that the rest of his family members would be safe. Smart, charming, and aware of the world around him, Lale was confident that he could tackle whatever job came his way.
But when Lale arrived in Auschwitz and locked eyes with a sign that said, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” Work Will Make You Free, he knew that this place would be a stark contrast to any other establishment he had seen. Immediately, he and others were stripped of full identities and any accessories that tied them to a former existence. Articles of clothing were swapped, valuables and other belongings were confiscated, and each spirit, whether vibrant or jaded, became diluted at the realization that lives were seized and shriveled to mere number representations.
The story unfolds as Lale learns that consistent hard work earns respect and an unwavering positive outlook ensures survival. He uses his appeal to find a niche role in the camp that sets him up for a more desirable day to day, in spite of the circumstances. Lale befriends the camp “Tatowierer” and is soon learning the ropes himself, commuting from Auschwitz to Birkenau to brand thousands of incoming residents. Construction is consistent as workers build their own torture chambers. When new nationalities migrate to camp, turf wars break out and unrest leads to even more death. As the seasons change, many take their own lives to escape the madness. Lale presses on, determined not to give up hope despite the lack of mercy that surrounds him, threatens to swallow him whole.
But if Lale was looking for a reason to persevere, his “why” knocked him breathless as she stood before him one day, in line to be tattooed. Gita, number 34902, becomes Lale’s prime motivation and the novel shifts quickly to reveal a hopeful undertone; a beautiful love story emerges through the bleak, cold, solid ground of Auschwitz.
I really liked the book and the fact that two stories ran parallel: An account of indestructible love and heart- hollowing loss. Heather Morris shed light on the extremes of the time, uniquely portraying 1942 Auschwitz in a way that really resonated with me. As I folded the pages and put down the novel, I was conflicted because Lale and Gita’s love prevailed in the end, but the concentration camp images that she sketched stayed with me. The fact that they are true historical insights still shake me to my core upon reflection. My heart was left with this strange mix of somber awe.
Final Score: 4 This book was breathtaking: The love story was as charming as Lale himself and the portrayal of our history was detailed enough to stir proper emotions of disgust and respect for those who did their best to survive and bestow acts of humanity on others- without completely ruining the book with constant horrifying depictions. Heather Morris balanced two very delicate themes well.
BEST FOR: All readers. I think this book is an important one- It is written in a very effortless, swift vernacular that taps into a significant point in time and highlights World War II in a way that history books do not.
NOT GOOD FOR: The faint of heart. Lale and Gita’s love story is powerful, but the realities of war are equally apparent on the pages.
IF THIS BOOK/ AUTHOR WAS A HIGH SCHOOL STEREOTYPE: Lale & Gita would receive the “Class Couple” superlative, destined for “happily ever after” despite the odds.
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