I saw this book advertised on some sites like Goodreads as well as my library’s website, so in looking for comparative titles for my own WWII/Holocaust Historical Romance novel for agency querying, I sought out the book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Written by Heather Morris, it is based on a true story of a real Holocaust survivor named Lale (born Ludwig Eisenberg) from Slovakia.
Spoiler Alert: There will be some of the plot discussed in this review, though I’ll try to keep it brief and unspecific.
The concept behind the book with as little spoilers as possible is the story of Lale’s journey as he voluntarily surrenders himself to the Germans for work at Auschwitz concentration camp under the guise that in doing so, he can protect the rest of his family from a similar fate. Once there, he fights to survive, trying to find the best method of getting the least taxing job. Thanks to his multilingual capabilities, he befriends a French political prisoner who works as the Tattooist for new camp prisoners and brings him alongside him as an assistant. Before long, though, the original tattooist is taken without Lale knowing his fate, and Lale replaces him as the new tattooist of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
One day, a transport of women posted in the Canada room (the area where raided wealth and belongings from prisoners and murdered Jews is stored) are brought to be re-tattooed when their previous stamped on numbers start to fade off. Lale is apprehensive to do so, but as he begins, he matches gaze with one of the women and has a love at first sight moment. Before long, his goal is to find out more about this woman and survive the camp so that they can, in his own words, “make a life where [they] are free to kiss when [they] want to, make love when [they] want to” (Morris, 2018, p.131).
From this concept, the story blooms. Is it a cheery story filled with first love and passion? No, not really. It’s partially that, but one cannot forget the setting even within this romance. There is passion and first love between Lale and Gita (her name, which she is apprehensive to tell him at first), but there are also marks of tragedy, fear, survivors’-guilt, and violence. This story doesn’t sugarcoat the dark reality of what happened in the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, but it paints a tale of the human spirit mixed in all that to show how much is capable past such bleak, evil circumstances.
The writing style is easy to read, and it holds a very true to life air to it in which you can place yourself in Lale’s and/or Gita’s shoes. We can see both people’s motivations and sympathize with them. They even handle the dynamic of Lale’s relationship with his guard, Baretski, in a interesting way. Baretski is a young Romanian who joined the Hitler Youth and SS from a young age, and while he views Lale’s as evidently beneath him, he also forms a weird, be it twisted, friendship with Lale, asking the Tattooist advice about women, having Lale organize a prisoner team for a game of football against the SS guards, and even doing Lale a few favors in regards to Gita.
It helps to show how some of the SS guards, while still fundamentally backwards-minded and cruel, weren’t all the stereotypical monsters some media likes to portray Nazis to be. This doesn’t in anyway downsize the evil actions they did, but it helps to show how scores of people can be manipulated through misinformed information, propaganda, and lies of riches/lands of milk and honey. Schindler’s List (1994) follows a similar idea with how it portrayed the camp Commandant, Amon Goeth, a twisted-minded person who shows instances of humanity but ultimately, cannot get past his prejudices and sick loyalty to Hitler’s ideals. I appreciate this because while one still can’t sympathize with them, it makes them a much more real, compelling, and terrifying villain. Additionally, seeing as it’s based in the reality of a real SS guard, I thought it added an interesting dynamic to the story.
As for how factual this story is, there have been questions on the authenticity of details from the routes taken from Auschwitz to Burkenau to the number tattooed on Gita’s arm, so keep that in mind when reading this novelization form of Lale’s story (Flood, 2018, p.6-8). Likely there are some exaggerations and/or creative licensing that were utilized, and when covering such a delicate and tragic concept as this subject matter, I definitely think readers should research more on the nonfictional accounts of the Holocaust for comparison and understanding. However, I think there is a way that fictionalized stories of the Holocaust can be thresholds for younger audiences to seek out such media. It was the Diary of Anne Frank and meeting a Holocaust survivor named David Faber myself that encouraged me to research so heavily into the subject matter, and so, I think books like The Tattooist of Auschwitz can have a similar affect on younger generations like mine.
Content-wise there are some curse-words scattered throughout, but they aren’t used abundantly for shock factor. They fit the story for what it is telling, and there is a couple implied sex scene with one holding some minor lead up, but nothing is explicitly detailed in it.
Overall, I’d give The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris a 5/5 star, because I loved the concept, Lale and Gita are so preciously beautiful together, and it presents the material in an appropriate, tactful manner without sugarcoated too much. I was tempted to take .5 of a star away from historical inaccuracies, but at the end of the day, the novel’s cover states, “based on the powerful true story of love and survival”. Thus, the room for creative licensing seemed a little more evident for me in going in. Again, for future readers, be mindful of that fact if it’s a concern of yours.
Flood, Alison. The Tattooist of Auschwitz attacked as inauthentic by camp memorial centre. (2018, 7 Dec). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/07/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz-attacked-as-inauthentic-by-camp-memorial-centre