The Tattooist of Auschwitz: A Novel
“a novel that is at once sobering and poignant, both weighted with unspeakable horrors and uplifted by the unique hope of love.”
There are few things more unsettling than seeing a number tattooed on the inside of an elderly person’s wrist. No words need to be spoken, because so much is immediately understood.
The people with those tattoos—mostly, but not all, Jewish—were incarcerated in Nazi concentrations camps, their identities reduced to a five-digit number, their humanity crushed, their bodies starved. Millions died there, their bodies incinerated en masse in industrial-sized crematoria. The survivors are now few and old. Soon there will be none left.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the fictionalized version of the true story of such a survivor. In 2003 Lale Sokolov was old, his wife had died, and he wanted to make sure his, really their, story outlived him. Screenwriter Heather Morris was working in the care facility In Melbourne, Australia, where he lived. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on their conversations.
Lale was a Slovakian Jew who survived Auschwitz because he made himself useful to the SS as the man who tattooed the numbers on the wrists of those thousands upon thousands entering the camp. It was also in Auschwitz that he met Gita, the woman who later became his wife. The story is about these two, their ordeal, their survival, and their love for each other.
One advantage to fiction is that sometimes provides the only way to convey the full emotional impact of events on the characters. It can flesh out, give dimension to memories that otherwise would remain distant. And knowing the story is true allows the reader to accept the otherwise implausible effects of accident, coincidence, and simple luck that so often change people’s lives. And Lale had more than his share of each.
Lale enters Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Spring of 1942. The gassing of those deemed unable or unsuitable for the work of the camp has already started. He is quickly assigned to be a tattooist, and from then on, this is how everyone in the camp refers to him. Author Morris uses the German word, Tätowierer, throughout, and this is effective in reinforcing the strangeness of Lale’s position, a prisoner working for the Nazis.
As Tätowierer, Lale receives privileges. Officially he is now part of the SS and enjoys ample food and a good deal of freedom to move around the camp. When he can, he uses this freedom to secretly get extra food for other prisoners.
Lale’s work is in Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Auschwitz I, 4 km away, tattooing numbers on the inside of anonymous left wrists for hours each day. At one point, Lale has to go to Auschwitz I every day for weeks, because “[t]he five crematoria are working at full capacity, but large numbers of prisoners still have to be tattooed.” The understatement is powerful: for Lale, the relentless progress of the exterminations has become a numbing routine.
Lale necessarily has interactions with a number of SS officers, such as Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, and Josef Houstek, who is in charge of the crematoria. Even the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele appears. The most detail is given to the officer Lale knew best, Stefan Baretski, the man who guards him. This portrait is nuanced but reveals a deeply disturbing personality.
The love story between Lale and Gita provides much of what can be called the “plot.” They meet when he tattoos her, and their mutual attraction is immediate. The courtship, if one can call it that, naturally is difficult. Lale has little time off, so he often does not see Gita for weeks on end, and their stolen time together is risky. Yet their love flourishes. At the end of the war they are separated, and the story of their finding each other after the war is at once improbable and heartwarming, the stuff of romantic comedy almost.
One strength of the book is its simple portrayal of the humanity of the prisoners and how they bonded in ways they wouldn’t on the outside. At one point a group of gypsies is brought into the barracks where Lale’s bunk was. He gets to know them little by little and forms a wonderful bond with them. There is a short scene that could only have come straight from Lale’s own memory in which he and the gypsies recognize that, but for Auschwitz, they never would have had anything to do with each other.
This novel began as a screenplay, and this perhaps explains a few things that are somewhat curious. There is an overall dearth of physical description. And what there is, is very brief. So, though there are maps in the back to give some orientation, overall a true visual feel for the camps is lacking.
Another rather odd omission is that Morris is vague about the specifics of the extermination process. Lale must have seen what was happening as soon as he entered. But the sorting of people to the right or left, to life or death, is not mentioned until long after Lale has begun tattooing. And even then it is almost an aside. For readers not well acquainted with the history of Auschwitz, this may be initially confusing.
Anyone who has even visited a concentration camp gets an immediate sensation upon entering. A quiet sense of hopeless emptiness or nothingness. And survivors have confirmed, in movies like the late Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, that they felt it at the time. But Morris stays away from the sort of introspection that would bring this out, perhaps because Lale didn’t do it himself. Likely she wanted to keep Lale’s story close to the way he told it and not insert too many of her own embellishments. A valid choice.
The result is a novel that is at once sobering and poignant, both weighted with unspeakable horrors and uplifted by the unique hope of love.