I’m in a book club that actually picks really good books, and in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. This book actually came highly recommended to me by the hottest Bachelorette contest of all time–Tyler Cameron–but I didn’t expect to fly through it so quickly. I read it in one afternoon!
The book begins in 1942, when Lale, a Slovakian, ends up at Auschwitz-Birkeneau, the most infamous of all the concentration camps, which was in Nazi-occupied Poland. There, he quickly learns the lay of the land and due to his language skills and a lucky draw, is assigned to be a tattooist–the one who inks the infamous numbers onto the prisoners who come into the camp. This gives him certain privileges which he uses to help others who are not as lucky in the camp. Then, he sees her. Rather, he tattoos her. Gita, he later learns. Their attraction to each other is instanteous and both risk so much for little moments together. As Lale learns what he can get away with and fights for himself, Gita, and others, the war wages on, the camps take in even more prisoners, and eventually it becomes clear that they must truly fight for their future together, as well as pray that luck will prevail. You all know how to Holocaust ends–and how it began–and while this book takes a strong look at one section of it, you don’t need too deep of a background in the history of World War II to truly understand it or be consumed by the book’s heartfelt story. This is a book that deals with a lot of pain and trauma and evil–it’s a book about a freaking concentration camp for crying out loud–but the fact that it’s based on a true love story makes it a little more bearable to the heart. There is something of a happy ending for these two, and that’s enough to get you through the book.
According to the notes in the back, the story began as a screenplay after Morris met Lale following Gita’s death in the early 2000s. Then, it was adapted to be a novel. It reads that way, definitely. While the prose is good, it does often feel “translated” from a screenplay, but that’s almost what makes it such a quick and compelling read–it focuses on the action playing out and the movements of the characters without relying too much on miscellaneous dialogue and the like. I can’t imagine this not eventually becoming the movie it was intended to be.
I’ve also, since finishing the book, read that it isn’t super historically accurate–according to the Auschwitz memorial people. Some of the “events” they say aren’t based on record, and Gita’s number is wrong, which would be easy to fact check. However, I’ve recently realized there are basically NO historical fiction books about the Holocaust that get everything perfectly accurate–and it’s not even because we don’t have the resources, because we have them, and living survivors. I think it has to do with an outsider’s inability to even comprehend the full reality of that situation and to need a healthy distance from that reality. That doesn’t make the book less of a good read–but do read this as historical fiction and not memoir. However, I hope this book does inspire good discussions about how we tell survivor’s stories, because I think it does it compellingly and in a way that makes readers want to do their own research afterward.