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Posted on 31 May 2018 in Fiction | 1 comment

HEATHER MORRIS The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Reviewed by Clare O’Brien

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz gives a harrowing insight into how a person might survive and how love persists in the darkest of places.

Beyond the yard, disappearing into the darkness, is a further compound. The tops of the fences are lined with razor wire. Up in the lookouts Lale sees SS pointing rifles in his direction. Lightning hits a fence nearby.

During the current resurgence of interest in dystopian fiction, Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz serves as a harsh reminder that some dystopias don’t need to be imagined. This novel follows the life of its protagonist, Lale Sokolov, and is based on true events surrounding Lale’s time at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Once assigned the job of tattooing fellow prisoners entering the concentration camp, Lale finds that he is able to use what little – and often compromising – privilege he has to survive. Morris spent time with Lale during the final years of his long life, documenting the extraordinary events that led to his survival and meeting the love of his life:

‘What are you doing?’

‘Looking for four-leaf clover. You’d be surprised by how many there are here.’

Survival is certainly a central theme in the novel. It can be read as a string of close encounters with death, which is astoundingly avoided at each turn. Lale’s endurance thus seems to be due to an unnerving combination of luck and talent. It becomes apparent that his job as tattooist, something he initially does not want to do, saves his life more than once. Holding a more important role within the camp gives him access to a certain level of privilege that would otherwise be unattainable. The author portrays this through Lale’s interactions with figures of authority who hold the power to determine his fate:

Baretski is in a good, even a playful mood – he has a secret and he wants Lale to guess what it might be. Lale plays Baretski’s juvenile game.

‘You’re letting us all go home?’

Baretski laughs and punches Lale on the arm.

‘You’ve been promoted?’

‘You’d better hope not, Tätowierer. Otherwise someone not as nice as me will end up minding you.’

Lale boldly treads a fine line between complete submission and over-confidence when conversing with some of his SS commanders. This places him in the unique position of being perceived by his captors as a friend, but not a threat. Morris uses scenes like these to illustrate how Lale’s charisma plays a role in his survival. However, this is contrasted with scenes where he barely escapes death: determination and charm account for very little in Auschwitz-Birkenau if not accompanied by sheer luck.

There is one overarching factor that drives Lale’s endurance: love. This story is as much about love as it is about survival. The reader is aware of Lale’s love of women throughout the novel. He is a confirmed ladies’ man in its purest form, his clear admiration of all women stemming from his relationship with his mother, whom he left behind in Slovakia. There is, however, one woman who captures his heart from the moment he tattoos her arm upon her arrival at the camp. Her name is Gita, and she becomes a beacon of hope as Lale pursues an unusual courtship in the most dire of circumstances. As Lale and Gita’s relationship quickly develops, the reader is offered some ease from the anxieties of the otherwise ominous events that take place around them:

Lale shakes his head. ‘No. I’m back here with you now. What matters is what I’ve told you many times, that we will leave this place and have a free life together. Trust me, Gita.’

Both Lale and Gita have lost their families and former lives in Slovakia. In order to survive, they must foresee a palpable future, and they find their futures in one another. The two characters have been carefully juxtaposed. Lale’s job as tattooist is to reduce incoming prisoners to numbers, seemingly erasing their past and their sense of identity. Gita, on the other hand, works in the administration building and bears the task of processing all the names of the prisoners coming through Auschwitz-Birkenau. Their relationship symbolises the humanity lying beneath the mass objectification. Morris makes a considerable effort to align Lale’s survival with his love for his future wife. By the end of the novel, it becomes evident that love and survival are intertwined. Lale and Gita’s love transcends the numbers marked on their arms and what they represent in the Nazi regime.

Originally intended to be a screenplay, it is not surprising that The Tattooist of Auschwitz is heavily dialogue-driven. The chapters read like acts containing scenes of varying lengths; the story of Lale’s journey through – and from – the camp is interspersed with vignettes reflecting the repetitive horror of life in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Morris maintains emotive and descriptive language within a simple linguistic framework, allowing the story to essentially tell itself. This novel gives a gripping and harrowing insight into how a person might survive history’s most notorious death camp, and more importantly, how love persists in the darkest of places.

Heather Morris The Tattooist of Auschwitz Echo 2018 PB 277pp $29.99

Clare O’Brien is an English literature graduate, who still enjoys participating in literary criticism and discourse.

You can buy The Tattooist of Auschwitz from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

1 Comment

  1. There seems to have been a flood of fictional WWII accounts lately, and I don’t understand why when the true life narratives are so compelling!! I can’t wait to read this one, every review and blurb I come across gives me chills. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!