You see the word ‘Auschwitz’ and what does it do to you? Transport you to another place, another time? Take you right into the face of hell? Conjure images of death and despair, horror and hopelessness? By forming such a violent and incomprehensible part of our worlds history, our connotations of ‘Auschwitz’ are horrific, and rightly so. Yet as a history buff and a literature lover, I can’t help but be drawn to any books that mention the word, or indeed any books associated with World War Two and the holocaust.
The very idea that a recent poll showed that a shocking percentage of both children and adults didn’t even know what the Holocaust was terrified me beyond measure. Such a disturbing and violent part of our worlds history needs to be remembered and commemorated, for how else are we to honour the victims and stop ourselves from falling into the same territory as flawed human beings? That’s why when I saw Heather Morris’s book The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I found myself immediately drawn towards it.
What I liked about the book when I first read the blurb was that it promised to not only tell the story of real victims of the Holocaust, but that it also took quite an original idea in exploring what it was like to be the man who was forced to tattoo his fellow victims with their identification numbers. This man is Lale Sokolov, who arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. The book follows Lale’s story, detailing how he came to be given this job as well as how he met Gita, a young woman whom Lale is determined will survive alongside him.
The opening of the book, in my opinion, is a superbly written one in which we immediately begin to gather a sense of what it could have been like for those who were rounded up and taken to various concentration camps. The picture is bleak and visceral, with Lale being ‘just one among countless young men stuffed into wagons designed to transport livestock’ (p. 3). This one sentence conveys an incredible amount of horror for the modern reader who already understands what is happening to them. The connotations of ‘livestock’ and the young men’s immediate alignment with animals show how they are being treated as nothing better than the lowest creature on the food chain. The mixture of vomit, faeces and urine amidst the carriages only furthers this idea of degeneration, with their treatment before they even arrive at Auschwitz being deplorable. These ‘countless young men stuffed into wagons’ (p. 3) have already suffered a lack of true identity; they are reduced to nothing more than their religion, just one amongst a sea of others, faceless in the crown, another number to be ticked off a list. Like the cattle who have came before in these wagons, they are treated as none other than one of the herd.
The above treatment is only further solidified when the men arrive at Auschwitz and are forcibly tattooed. Again, their treatment is aligned with that of the cattle, with a sick mirroring of the identification number seen in the ears of cattle, another way of marking property and ownership. What’s so fascinating to consider in this book is that Lale experiences this, yet as the book moves forwards he eventually becomes the man who is doing the act of tattooing. Holding such a position grants his various minuscule benefits which we see make all the difference not just for him but for other camp members. Yet he still has to reconcile with himself the fact that he has to be the one doing this for the Nazi’s, permanently marking men and women.
The more you explore this idea in the further contexts of Word War Two the more you come to realise that this was actually one of the most horrific aspects of the Nazi regime. They didn’t just inflict terror and torture on the Jewish community (as well as many others), but they also made this community inflict it upon each other as well. From Lale tattooing the thousands that arrived, to those whose jobs it was to remove the murdered bodies from the crematoriums, and those who were strong and forced to abuse their fellow victims until they gave the Nazis the information they needed; it is all so incredibly twisted.
One of the things which I did find interesting about this book and quite unusual was how quickly I grew accustomed to the violence that Lale and so many others encountered, whilst more random moments seemed to affect me all the more than these other more obvious moments of horror. The book is punctuated by these acts of violence and death which you feel yourself becoming somewhat desensitized too because of their sheer frequency. For Lale living in this camp, death is a routine part of every day, and we begin to take on this feeling through him, loosing that initial shock at an unprovoked killing. You understand in your deepest levels how unspeakably awful it is, but you come to anticipate it as something that it looming in the immediate future.
In comparison, when the book reaches the time frame where the camps are liberated and start to empty of the surviving victims, I felt a wave of emotion unlike anything previously in this book. It was as if the sheer evilness which we’d become to accustomed to suddenly hits you with the force of a ton of bricks, and I cried and cried to think of what these people must have endured not only in living, but also in dying and above all enduring. We can have no idea of how the victims of the Nazi’s must have felt, but that feeling of hope after such deep anguish really reached up to kick you in the guts.
This book is, as the blurb tells, the love story of the tattooist of Auschwitz, but it is also an incredibly poignant and honest look into what the Halocaust was like for many victims. If you’re not someone particularly interested by romantic themes, please do not let this discourage you. The relationship we see begin to develop between Lale and Gita is as pure as it is heartbreaking, and there is nothing over the top or sickly sweet about it. After all, how can there be, set against the backdrop of such misery. I did think at times that their relationship did develop very fast into love and that it seemed slightly controlled by the author, but I have to remember that these were not normal times. In the face of such death and destruction mankind probably did fall in love at an accelerated rate, aware that time was short and nothing was certain. Likewise, the author has had to cover a vast amount of time in a relatively short book, so I think she can be forgiven for any parts which may have seemed to move more quickly than we would expect.
The writing in this book is very well controlled and suits the story being told perfectly. There is no dramatic prose or over the top literary tropes which I think would be distasteful and also distracting to the raw materials of this true story. Instead the author writes with a skilled yet easy to read simplicity which allows Lale to take centre stage as opposed to her own self. Likewise, she’s done a commendable job at taking someone’s memories and making them into something so solid and real that so many other readers are now able to live life alongside Lale and acknowledge what he and so many other experienced. It’s easy to see that I enjoyed this book, if such a word can be used, and I only wish that it was mandatory for works such as this to be read by every single human being.
‘Every single person should be implored to read this book and to experience life alongside Lale, for the author has turned such frightful memories into something cohesive that needs to be read. This is not just a love story set against the backdrop of the Holocaust; this is a fight for survival, a tale of hope and the pureness remaining in mankind when death and despair reigns above all else. I challenge you to make it to the last page without having shed a tear for the victims whom we will never be able to grant justice to.’