The Tattooist Of Auschwitz: Book Review

“Lale lived his life by the motto: ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’” – Author’s note

Anyone who has heard of the Holocaust knows how harrowing it must have been, but almost every story about it paints the same birds-eye perspective. They are all detail and no character: Auschwitz and Birkenau housed great evil. Millions perished. Gas chambers. Starvation. Complacency. Helplessness. But then an author like Heather Morris comes along, offering more than just details; she’s offering a story told through the real-life perspective of someone who actually survived it. It shares a true reality of being inside a concentration camp: the emotional connections, the human reactions, the extreme hatred, all agitated into the battle between hope and despair. The ordeals are told through the eyes of a prisoner whose only crime was his faith, with seeming effortlessness in evoking the reader’s imagination. Some events don’t need evocative language to show how awful they must have been.

The story begins like all who travelled to Auschwitz and Birkenau: on an overcrowded train carriage, reeking of human waste and hopelessness. Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, wrestles with his thoughts while keeping to himself. We can almost imagine the train carriage: an uneventful-looking box with wooden slatted walls and barbed-wire windows. It’s a vessel better designed for the transporting of cattle. But the true fear wasn’t the carriage, it’s where the carriage was heading, and this persuades us to keep reading. We also keep reading because this account is different. Lale’s story isn’t an encyclopedia with academic language and a neutral stance, it’s a true reflection. We are witnessing a human perspective, not a recount from pages of documentation and secondary sources. What was it really like to be inside a concentration camp? Well, this is as good as it gets.

The entrance to Auschwitz. Image: Sirio Carnevalino

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a unique story, sharing a survival that relied on both luck and determination. Survival was Lale’s life mission. Luck may have made him the tattooist – or tätowierer (pronounced: taetovierer) – of Auschwitz and Birkenau, but determination made him carry out the work, and that’s the basis of this book. Lale branded numbers on the men and women who came into the camps, an unforgettable stamp marking their fate, and holding that position gave him the perks to survive.

Holocaust survivor Heinz Kounio shows his tattooed serial number. Image: Ververidis Vasilis

It’s also a love story, showing how far we’d go for the one we love and how much love can drive our hope. Lale meets Gita like he has every other newcomer: by tattooing a number on her left arm. And then, through the course of their experience, they fall in love. They each drive the other’s aspiration for survival while developing the feeling of hope among the despair they witness around them. Lale helps us understand the crowd mentality of these camps, the social economy, the constant fear, the impulsiveness and the horror. For contrast, the love formed between Lale and Gita, as well as the relationships he builds with those around him, reveal the clear differences between the prisoners and the Schutzstaffel army that controlled them and killed them.

View of inside the Auschwitz concentration camp. Image: gigisteofin

We also get a glimpse at the enemy in a truly raw way. They are evil, of course, but they are also human beings. While we will never relate to their evil tendencies (thankfully), we can relate to the things that make them human: The desire for power, the rare concession towards mercy, and in one case we get to hear the private life. Heather does this well, not to sympathise but to simply create reality. It’s as if she wants to tell the reader: “They are evil, but unfortunately they belong to the human race.” One exceptionally evil person we meet is Dr Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death” for his cold demeanour during “selections”, where new prisoners were selected to either work or head straight to the gas chamber. Mengele, being truly evil, is not a person many of us will relate to, but we come to understand why he became so notorious. He was impulsive, he was chilling, and he had a cruel satisfaction for inciting fear in those around him.

Dr Josef Mengele. Image: source

As a final note, Lale’s role as the Tätowierer gave him access to areas of the camp which were off limits to many prisoners, including the worst place. Because of this, we witness some of the most harrowing events, all told without reservation through Lale’s eyes. It also gives us a better understanding of a concentration camp’s social economy, while allowing us to witness the polar opposites of the human psyche: from the one side featuring true love, compassion and altruism, to the other side featuring inhumanity, mercilessness and the ability to kill someone in such cold, calculated ways. This is not a book for the fainthearted.

If you are curious enough and want to know what it’s like to be a prisoner in a concentration camp, then head over to Booktopia and get it delivered to you. But be warned: it’s an unforgettable experience.


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