Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

I’m a writer of fiction, I make stuff up and my work is almost all in the mystery/crime genre. It attempts to shine a light on some elements of the darker side of life, but in truth my imagination ain’t got nothing on reality.

Last week I listened to the audiobook of The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. If I was to use two words to describe this novel they would be harrowing and hopeful. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the story of Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov. Lale was imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 and became the Tätowierer – the man who tattooed identification numbers on the arms of incoming prisoners. Lale met a young woman called Gita Furman in the camp and the two fell in love. Both survived three years in the concentration camp, partly due to Lale using his privileged position to smuggle additional rations to other prisoners. After the war Lale and Gita moved to Melbourne, where Lale met Morris who was to write his story. When the two discussed the project and Morris confessed she wasn’t Jewish, Lale indicated he thought this was good – he didn’t want anyone else’s baggage to cloud his personal story.

The book received much acclaim and become a best seller, but also received its fare share of criticism. Despite the novel never claiming to be anything other than historical fiction based on Lale’s memories, historians have criticised some details of the work as containing errors, exaggerations and misrepresentations.

Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. – Barbara Kingslover

Interestingly one of the things most criticised was that Gita’s tattooed number in the book is wrong. Lale was 87 when he and Morris began working together, and Gita had already died. Gita had the tattoo removed when she was in her sixties, so presumably if incorrect, the number was incorrectly remembered by Lale.

The controversy around the work raises some interesting reflections about memory and truth. The story is Lale’s, his memory, recollections of his life as reflected on his twighlight years, some seventy years after the events. Perhaps his mis-remembering the number simply reflected his reclamation of his and Gita’s identities as being much more than a tattooed number. Morris committed to tell his story as he tod it, it’s why he trusted her and chose her for the task. She honoured that trust by telling his story as he relayed it, using fiction to fill in the gaps. If Morris had disregarded some of Lale’s most pressing memories in favour of hard historical facts, the novel may have been a more accurate historical account, but would it have been dishonouring Lale’s memories and his story? Lale has passed away, so we cannot ask him how he might have felt about this.

The debate about the value of the work as a resource to understand the history of Auschwitz is interesting and perhaps the incredibly sensitive nature of the Holocaust lends itself to significant scrutiny. I have read some of the criticism including one stating ‘that the novel is “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”. It is a sentiment that I must disagree with. Having read the novel, and the criticism, I do not believe the details raised would have significantly changed my experience of the story. I listened to much of it whilst pottering around in the garden and it bought me both to tears and laughter at times. It also significantly increased my very limited knowledge of that period in history – the fictional I Am David by Anne Holm, Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List being the only other books I’ve read on the subject. It’s knowledge I probably would not have otherwise gained as I would not have been motivated to read an academic paper about it.

The novel may be a blend of an ageing man’s memories, fiction and facts, but it has never claimed to be more than that and should not be devalued on that basis. I found the The Tattooist of Auschwitz to be a moving and well written story and encourage you to read it if you have not already.

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