‘Tattooing the arms of men is one thing; defiling the bodies of young girls is horrifying.’
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the tale of two very ordinary people who did whatever it took to survive the horrors of the Nazi regime and the inhumanity inflicted on all who were forced through the gates of the Auschwitz camp during the Second World War.
Lale and Gita fell in love amidst the suffering and absolute terror in the concentration camps. Lale Sokolov decided to tell his story but with one very important instruction to the author, Heather Morris – ‘I don’t want any personal baggage brought to my story.’
Described as ‘heartbreaking, human and inspirational’, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is quite unlike any book that I have read about the atrocities of this time…a time WE MUST NEVER FORGET.
Read on for my thoughts…
About The Book:
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews, who survived Auschwitz and eventually made their home in Australia. In that terrible place, Lale was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival – literally scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Lale used the infinitesimal freedom of movement that this position awarded him to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep others alive. If he had been caught he would have been killed; many owed him their survival.
There have been many books about the Holocaust – and there will be many more. What makes this one so memorable is Lale Sokolov’s incredible zest for life. He understood exactly what was in store for him and his fellow prisoners and he was determined to survive – not just to survive, but to leave the camp with his dignity and integrity intact, to live his life to the full. Terrible though this story is, it is also a story of hope and of courage. It is also – almost unbelievably – a love story. Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale – a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer – it was love at first sight and he determined not only to survive himself, but to ensure that Gita did, too. His story – their story – will make you weep, but you will also find it uplifting. It shows the very best of humanity in the very worst of circumstances.
Like many survivors, Lale and Gita told few people their story after the war. They eventually made their way to Australia, where they raised a son and had a successful life. But when Gita died, Lale felt he could no longer carry the burden of their past alone. He chose to tell his story.
‘Welcome to Auschwitz. I am Commandant Rudolf Hoess. I am in charge here at Auschwitz. The gates you just walked through say: “Work will make you free”. This is your first lesson, your only lesson. Work hard. Do as you are told and you will go free. Disobey and there will be consequences. You will be processed here, and then you will be taken to your new home : Auschwitz Two – Birkenau.’
These are the words that welcome Ludwig Eisenburg, a Slovakian Jew, as he embarks from the train at the gates of Auschwitz. Lale Sokolov as we become to know him as, will also be known as prisoner 32407. Lale, a charmer of the ladies, a young man always with a positive upbeat approach to life is about to embark on a journey, a journey that will open his eyes and ears to a monster, an evil that permeates through every block of every building and through every fragment of this frightening and brutal regime.
Lale tells his story in an almost black and white fashion. He is a man wishing to tell his story before he passes on and does so in very clear, succinct manner. At times this can come across as lacking in emotion, but yet the starkness of his descriptions are so vivid and so clear, you cannot help but feel that you too see what he sees, you too smell what he smells.
‘The SS Officer opens the doors wide and they step into a cavernous room. Bodies, hundreds of naked bodies, fill the room. They are piled up on each other, their limbs distorted. Dead eyes stare. Men, young and old, children at the bottom. Blood, vomit, urine and faeces. The smell of death pervades the entire space. Lale tries to hold his breath, His lungs burn. His legs threaten to give way beneath him’
Those words, those faces, those nameless human beings murdered because of their beliefs, tortured in the most heinous fashion and stripped of their dignity and their last breath. This is the scene that Lale is forced to witness, as his services as the camp’s tattooist is called upon to identify a number tattooed on the arm of a fellow prisoner, now dead on the floor of the gas chamber.
It’s very hard for me to get my mind away from this image, an image that has become literally tattooed on my brain and into my thoughts. For Lale Sokolov, it must have taken every single ounce of his strength to put words to these atrocities that he witnessed.
As the camp’s tattooist, Lale finds that he has a little more freedom than others and he uses this to help many survive the camps in any way he can. He also meets Gita, the woman who is to become his wife. Lale and Gita’s story is raw and beautiful. Their love for each other flourishes somehow amidst the death and barbarity of the camp. They see hope in each other’s eyes, hope for a future outside the barbed wire, hope for a life together and it is this hope that carries each of them through the most traumatic days of life in Auschwitz.
When I turned the last pages of Lale’s story, I realised that there was more. At the back of the book there are photographs of Lale and Gita together, looking so handsome a pair and so very much in love. Lale passed away in October 2006, five years after his beloved Gita and after he got to finally tell his story to Heather Morris. Their son Gary writes his own tribute to his parents at the back of the book, with words that I think say so much..
‘With Dad, it was the lack of emotion and heightened survival instinct that remained with him, to the point where even when his sister passed away he did not shed a tear. When I asked him about this, he said that after seeing death on such a grand scale for so many years, and after losing his parents and brother, he found he was unable to weep – that is, until Mum passed away. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry.’
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a book that still brings shivers to my spine and tears to my eyes. The story of Lale and Gita, is true. It is but one story, among many more that will never get written and that we will never know. This book is a tribute to the memory of all who entered through the gates of this hell, it is a tribute to the souls of all who perished and it is a love story that defied the evil and the inhumanity of a hateful and murderous regime.
Stark. Poignant. Raw……TRUE…
Purchase Link ~ The Tattooist of Auschwitz
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather Morris is a native of New Zealand, now resident in Australia, working in a large public hospital in Melbourne. For several years she studied and wrote screenplays, one of which was optioned by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter in the US.
In 2003, Heather was introduced to an elderly gentleman who ‘might just have a story worth telling’. The day she met Lale Sokolov changed both their lives, as their friendship grew and he embarked on a journey on self-scrutiny, entrusting the innermost details of his life during the Holocaust to her. Heather originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay – which ranked high in international competitions – before reshaping it into her debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.