By Heather Morris, A love story between two Holocaust survivors based on a true story
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris has been on the bestseller lists for so, so, so long, but I tend to shy away from WWII books (just because there tend to be a lot of them) so I’d been dodging it for quite some time.
Nonetheless, when I heard a sequel was coming out, Cilka’s Journey, and more importantly that the sequel was also getting good reviews, I finally caved and decided to read it just so I could find out what all the fuss was about.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on a true story about a Jewish man, Lale Sokolov, who is put to work as a tattooist at Auschwitz, the infamous German concentration camp. There, he meets Gita, a woman who is waiting to be branded with her identifying serial number, and he falls in love with her.
The story that follows is one about love, luck, survival and finding hope in the most impossible of places.
See The Tattooist of Auschwitz on Amazon.
I liked the Tattooist of Auschwitz more than I thought I would.
Lale’s story is unique in that he’s not really a normal prisoner at Auschwitz. Instead, in a stroke of luck, he has a chance to become the tattooist at the concentration camp, which brings him into the fold of the political wing of the camp administration. This allows him some level of protection, freedom and privileges which provides a slightly different perspective about Auschwitz and the Holocaust than can typically be seen. When he falls in love with Gita, he’s able to extend some of those protections to her as well.
Of course, just becoming the tattooist isn’t enough to ensure his survival, as is seen by the disappearance (and presumable death) of his predecessor, Pepan. Instead, Lale manages to make it out alive due a combination of luck, his own ingenuity and a willingness to do what needs to be done to survive.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a plot-driven story that’s written in a straightforward and simple manner. It leaves a lot of the analysis and contemplation for the reader to do on their own, but the plot is interesting enough that it still remains a worthwhile story despite that.
Part of my initial reluctance in reading this book is that I tend to dislike “sweet” or tearjerker-y novels that other people find heartwarming. I know that sort of makes me sound like a monster, but I’m often too skeptical of those stories to enjoy them.
In the Tattooist of Auschwitz, there were a few parts that felt borderline contrived, but there was also enough substance in there that I felt like I could get something out of it either way. Ultimately, I did feel that it increased my knowledge and understanding of the experience and tragedy of WWII and the Holocaust. However, I say this with a grain of salt due to historical inaccuracies that have been reported.
Historical Inaccuracies and other Critisms
In December 2018, roughly a year after the novel was released, the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre published a 7-page article looking into the various historical inaccuracies, large and small, that are interspersed throughout Lale and Gita’s story.
If you’ve read the book or are planning on reading the book, the article is worth reading in full. It reports that things such as Lale saving a boy from being hanged or acquiring penicillin for Gita could have never happened. It also corrects smaller details such as the spelling of Lale’s name (Lali), Gita’s serial number or the block Lale lived in.
The biggest inaccuracy was probably the character of Cilka. She has an (involuntary) intimate relationship with one of the senior S.S. officers. The article seems to think it’s unlikely that could have happened. I’m curious what becomes of this in the next book because Morris’s sequel, Cilka’s Journey, is entirely about that character.
The inaccuracies are a bit of a shame, since if all those things were corrected, I think the story would be just as interesting. I’m concerned that Morris’s follow-up will double-down on the inaccuracies instead of trying harder to be respectful of the history involved.
Beyond that, in some ways, I found the story a little too hopeful, if that makes any sense. For a story about the Holocaust, it seemed fairly optimistic. It talks about the atrocities of the concentration camp, but only in relation to characters we are never given a chance to get to know. The book seems to want to shield its readers from the emotional impact of the horrors of the Holocaust and focus on the uplifting and sweet love story at its center instead, but I think that aspect of it ultimately does Lale and Gita’s story a disservice.
Tattooist of Auschwitz Movie / Series Adaptation
Back in 2018, it was reported that Synchronicity Films was developing the book as a TV mini-series, but it’s not clear that the project is still on track as of mid-2019. The project was originally aiming for an early 2020 airing, but given that no further news seems to have been reported on it, it’s possible that it’s on pause or delayed.
Read it or Skip it?
I would say that if you’re going to read this book, I’d also recommend reading the article assessing its historical accuracy as well. I hope that the follow-up novel does try harder to be historically accurate, since it does seem a bit disrespectful to profit off Holocaust stories without trying to be faithful to the facts.
That said, even with the various corrections, it still is a worthwhile and unique story about the Holocaust for those interested in that topic. There are certainly harder-hitting books or better written books, but this one is a simple, straightforward and hopeful story that provides an interesting perspective as well.
If you were only going to read one WWII book though, I’d recommend All The Light We Cannot See, which is fantastic, thoughtful and beautifully written.
See The Tattooist of Auschwitz on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
The book opens with Lale tattooing numbers on a young girl.
Chapter 1 – 2 (April 1942)
Lale Eisenberg, 24, is a Slovakian Jew from Krompachy. In towns across Slovakia, each Jewish family was told they needed to had over one child over 18 to work for the German government, and Lale offered himself up for his family. He befriends another prisoner, Aron. After a long journey on a crammed wagon, they arrive at Auschwitz (Birkenau). He is stripped, shaved and tattooed with the numbers 32407. They are put to work constructing new blocks of the concentration camp. As a jew, he wears a yellow star. Criminals wear green triangles. Political enemies wear red. And the Russian prisoners of war don’t have patches.
Soon, Lale contracts typhus and awakes 7 days later with Pepan, a French tattooist caring for him. Lale learns that was put on the death cart, but secretly saved by Aron and cared for by others in his block. However, Aron killed when their kapo (a prisoner who is assigned supervisory duty) found out Lale was missing. Pepan offers to let Lale work with him as a tattooist as well, and Oberscharführer Houstek, who oversees Pepan, approves it.
Chapters 3 – 6 (June – December 1942)
Lale previously worked in a department store. Now, he tattoos terrified, involuntary people. One day, Pepan is not there and Lale is told he is the tattooist now. Lale asks for an assistant, and Leon is brought to him. As the tattooer, Lale is part of the Political Wing of the camp administration, which offers some protection and has privileges like extra rations and his own bed in a new, empty block. He shares his food with his old blockmates. Baretski is the SS officer that oversees Lale and Leon. He’s a jerk, but Lale puts up with it and gets to know Baretski by giving him advice on women.
A woman catches Lale’s eye one day, and he writes her a note which Baretski takes to her, even though prisoners having paper or pencils is forbidden. She soon introduces herself as Gita. Gita lives in Block 29, and she works in the warehouse sorting prisoner’s possessions. Her friends are Dana and Ivana. On Sundays most prisoners do not work, and Gita can see Lale if he is not working. She says she will not tell Lale her last name or where she’s from until the day they leave this place.
Lale meets two paid builders, Victor and his son Yuri, who are construction crematoriums for the concentration camp. They give him some sausage. Lale asks them to bring chocolate and says he can pay for it. Lale then asks a few women at the warehouse (sorting possessions) to sneak him some jewelry or valuables in exchange for chocolate and food. The women agree, and Lale is able to pay Victor for goods from outside.
Chapters 7 – 10 (January – March 1943)
Lale hears that Gita is sick and needs penicillin. He rushes to Victor, who is able to acquire some. He asks Baretski to have Gita moved to the administrative office to work, where there is heat. There, Gita meets Cilka, who is nice and very pretty and is permitted to keep her hair long. One day as Gita and Cilka are working, Cilka is dragged into a room with Schwarzhuber, Senior Commandant of Birkenau, who rapes her.
One day, a new prisoner named Jakub comes in, a large man who is very hungry. Lale sneaks him some food. Lale soon has accumulated quite a stash of jewelry and cash from the women at the warehouse, and he gives Gita a diamond ring. Meanwhile, more and more people arrive at the camp, including whole families with children in tow. Lale’s block is now filled with Gypsies. He meets Nadya, whose son and husband have died of typhus. He enjoys playing with the children there.
Chapters 11 – 15 (May 1943)
Now people across Europe are arriving at the camp. And there is a new doctor in the camp, Josef Mengele. Mengele is selecting patients for something and takes Leon away, despite Lale’s protests. Later, Lale is told to tattoo a bunch of naked girls that Mengele is inspecting.
One day, Baretski asks Lale to find eleven prisoners to play in a football game against a team of SS officers. Lale assembles a team, but warns them that they must lose. It ends up being moot, since they are eventually too weak to compete effectively. As they play, ashes from the crematorium rain down on them. There are now five crematoriums working constantly, but more prisoners arrive daily too.
A neighbor that Gita once knew, Mrs. Goldstein, shows up at the camp. She tells Gita that Gita’s family is most likely gone. Gita strikes a deal with their kapo to spare Mrs. Goldstein from hard labor in exchange for Lale’s diamond. There are a few weeks where Lale is working every day with so many more prisoners coming in that he does not see Gita for a while. Meanwhile, Leon finally returns, looking thinner. He tells Lale that Mengele cut his balls off.
Chapters 16 – 21 (March – April 1944)
A boy, Mendel Bauer, shows up asking for help since he was caught escaping and will be hung the next morning. Lale asks Bella at the administration office to secretly put him on a transport out to a boy’s camp that’s going out at midnight.
Gita finally tells Lale what’s going on with Cilka, that Schwarzhuber has been using her for sex for the past year or so. Lale notes that there is one other girl who is allowed to keep her hair long at the camp.
One day, the SS officers discover Lale’s stash of currency and jewels. They march him into Block 11, one of the punishment blocks. He finds Jakub there. His job is to beat people into giving up names or kill them. Jakub remembers Lale’s kindness towards him, but Jakub would rather kill Lale then hand over a bunch of names to the officers. Jakub beats Lale until the SS officers are satisfied that he doesn’t know anything. Lale survives the beating, and Jakub secretly cares for him until the SS offices come for him. He’s taken to Oberscharführer Houstek, who assigns him to hard labor, but doesn’t kill him.
Lale sees Baretski, who he asks to give a message to Gita and Cilka that he is alive, but doing hard labor. Cilka realizes he told her in order to ask for help. Cilka asks Schwarzhuber for a favor, who then reassigns Lale to his previous job as the tattooist, against Houstek’s wishes. Lale resumes trading with Victor and Yuri, but is more apprehensive now.
Chapters 22 – 23 (Summer 1944)
More people continuously arrive to the camp, and one night the Gypsies that Lale lives with are herded on a truck to be taken away and cremated. Another night, in an act of defiance, ammunition workers manage to stockpile gunpowder to try to blow up one of the crematoriums.
Chapters 24 – 25 (Fall 1944 – Spring 1945)
A cold autumn passes. In late January, there is a commotion when it’s announced that the Russians (allied forces) will be arriving soon and that the camp is being emptied out. The women are herded out to an unknown fate by the SS officers, and as Gita leaves she shouts to Lale that her last name is Furman.
Gita and the other women march for a long time, and Gita ends up marching with some Polish girls who decide to make a break for it. They are able to get away to a nearby house. They eventually make their way to the sister of one of the girls in Krakow. From there, Gita gets a ride on a fruit truck back home to Bratislava, where she lives in a crowded apartment with other survivors. Her two brothers (Doddo and Latslo), who had joined the Russian army, find her and they talk briefly but they cannot stay.
Chapters 26 – 27 (Spring – Summer 1945)
With Auschwitz emptied, Lale is shuttled to a different concentration camps. He finally decides to make a break for it. He gets through a fence, dives into a river and wakes up to see Russian soldiers. When the Russians find out he speaks multiple languages, they put him to work. He’s given a nice room, clothes and good food. His job is to go out and find local women to entertain them each night, and they give him jewelry and cash to entice them with. He’s able to find willing girls, who seem familiar with the practice.
Eventually, Lale is allowed to scout for girls without a guard. He takes the opportunity to escape. He walks until he gets to a bus station and rides home to Slovakia.
Chapter 28 (Summer 1945)
Lale goes home to Krompachy to find his sister Goldie is still alive. She is married to a Russian man with the last name Solokov. He tells her about Gita, and Goldie suggests going to Bratislava to find her since people from the concentration camps are arriving there. He buys a horse and cart and travels there, living in his cart for two weeks. Finally, he is reunited with Gita, and he proposes immediately.
Lale and Gita take his sister’s Russian last name, which is more accepted than his own, Eisenberg. They settle in Bratislava. In October 1945, Lale and Gita are married. He starts a business importing fine fabrics. They also smuggle money and jewelry for wealthy people out of the country, and so the business is eventually shut down and nationalized.See The Tattooist of Auschwitz on Amazon.