The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is one of those books I had to mentally prepare myself for before reading.
A true story from a horrendous event in modern history, I knew it was going to be an emotional read before I even turned the first page. I’d read very positive reviews of it though, so I took a deep breath and stepped into Lale Sokolov’s remarkable story.
Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who arrived at Auschwitz in 1942, told his story to Heather Morris over three years, almost sixty years after his ordeal. The length of time it took for Lale and Heather to tell his story is apparent from the detail and authenticity of the narrative.
Soon after Lale arrived at Auschwitz, he found himself being given the horrendous job of tattooing prisoners by scratching numbers into their skin with permanent ink. As the Tatowierer, or Tattooist of Auschwitz, he is granted special “privileges” over his fellow prisoners, in the form of extra food rations, better sleeping conditions and permission to move around the camp more freely. Always acting selflessly, he shares his rations with others and shrewdly trades money and possessions from the deceased for provisions, including medicine, that he uses to save lives.
Lale himself seems to have nine lives and his determination to survive is backed by a combination of courage, charisma and luck. The fact that he can speak multiple languages and talk himself out of sticky situations also protects him. Heather Morris successfully conveys Lale’s charm and you can imagine him as an old man with a twinkle in his eye. That image is rendered into reality by photos at the back of the book showing Lale at different ages throughout his life. I saved looking at the photos until the end, finding that the impact of the story was even more powerful after matching the Lale Heather had created in my mind with the real one.
At the heart of The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a beautiful love story. When Lale tattoos Gitta’s arm, it is love at first sight and his devotion to her from then on fuels his fight to, not only survive himself, but do anything to ensure that she does too. Although harrowing at times, Lale and Gitta’s story is uplifting and will make even the most cynical believe in true love.
Revealing the very best and worst of humanity, The Tattooist of Auschwitz serves as a poignant reminder of an unbelievably atrocious event in our not-so-distant history and in fact, Lale wanted Heather to tell his story to make sure that it wouldn’t happen again. Heart-wrenching and unforgettable, Lale and Gitta’s story will stay with me for a long time.
Not many books have made me cry but The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a touching example of the strength of human spirit in appalling circumstances and I found myself holding back tears on the train to London the other weekend (I don’t recommend reading the ending on public transport!)
Let me know in the comments below if you’ve read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris.
“To save one is to save the world.”