Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

Based on the remarkable true story of Holocaust survivor Lale Solokov, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is compelling tale of hope, love and survival.

Heather Morris’s debut novel, one of the bestsellers of 2018, is based on years of conversations she had with Lale prior to his death in 2006.  A Slovakian Jew, Lale was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 and quickly stood out, earning himself the position of tätowierer – the tattooist of Auschwitz – after the previous one “disappeared”. Lale became responsible for permanently marking the thousands of prisoners entering the camp with their identification numbers, and one day his life changed forever when he met Gita Fuhrmannova– in Lale’s own words he tattooed a number on her arm and she in turn tattooed her name on his heart. Lale tried to use his position and extra privileges to try and do good, smuggling extra food, medicine and gifts to Gita and their friends. Both survived the hell of Auschwitz and Lale managed to track the love of his life down, proposing on the spot. The pair went on to live a long and happy life together in Australia with their son. Lale kept his past secret for over sixty years for fear of being seen as a Nazi collaborator, and only decided to come forward with his extraordinary story after Gita’s death.

Despite The Tattooist of Auschwitz being based on a true story, there are some inconsistencies which have come to light following publication (see here for more details), but that doesn’t detract from the heart of the novel – Lale and Gita’s romance. The two of them are likeable and it’s impossible not to champion them both. There is a lot packed into the book, and it provides an overview of the hell prisoners had to endure and builds suspense – even though Lale and Gita’s story was obviously a happy one, they both had to endure some terrible times before they left the concentration camp. The Tattooist of Auschwitz feels very much like a dark fairy tale, packed full of drama with an unexpected happy ending. The book is a compelling and heart-warming read from start to finish, and it’s hard to believe that something good could come out of Auschwitz given the atrocities that took place at the death camp.

But while The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a very gripping read, at times it feels as though it glosses over some of the horrors of the concentration camp. Within the story Lale witnesses a number of wicked acts and meets some infamous leaders of Auschwitz, including Josef Mengele (the notorious physician who conducted inhumane experiments on people), and despite being one of the “lucky ones” with more privileges than most, he must have been deeply traumatised by what he witnessed. Having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau myself I’m still unable to forget some of the things I read and saw there about the gruelling conditions prisoners were kept under, yet none of this is never really explored in much detail within the book, which made me feel uncomfortable at times. It doesn’t help that the style of writing is very matter of fact, meaning that for the most-part Lale’s emotions aren’t really examined in detail, particularly when some of his friends within the camp are taken away and murdered.

If it’s an endearing love story you’re after, a tale of love overcoming despair, The Tattooist of Auschwitz should definitely be on your reading list. It’s a remarkable tale, an easy read with likable characters, and of course a happy ending.
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