The Tattooist of Auschwitz

“The tattooing has taken only seconds, but Lale’s shock makes time stand still. He grasps his arm, staring at the number. How can someone do this to another human being? He wonders if for the rest of his life, be it short or long, he will be defined by this moment, this irregular number: 32407.”   

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the story of Lale Sokolov, a 24 year old Jewish Slovakian, who arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1949. After working his way through a series of roles in the camp, he is assigned the role of Tattooist. His task: scratching identification numbers into the arms of his fellow victims.

The tattooist is held in high regard by both the prisoners and guards; both have an appreciation of the barbaric nature of the role. And this provides Lale with a degree of safety not afforded to others. He is treated with respect, can move about the camp with some freedom, and is able to barter with guards and contractors. But the tattooist pays a high price. Men, women and children, young and old; Lale meets every new arrival to
Auschwitz face-to-face, he holds their hand and feels them shaking in terror.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

No emphasis is needed, the subject matter speaks for itself. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a horrific and intimate story of one man’s first-hand experiences of the Holocaust. It cannot be understated that Lale experienced some of the worst of the horrors of
Auschwitz; but at its core, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a love story.

Lale and Gita

Lale is a charmer, a chancer, and lives with his heart on his sleeve. He has a unique and rebellious attitude which provides is a resolute if naive sense of positivity which remains with him throughout despite the soul-destroying situations he experiences.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Lale and Gita after the war

One morning, Lale is forced to tattoo the arm of a young woman named Gita. Feeling an immediate connection, Lale sets out to locate her and keeps his spirits high by attempting to woo her. This light hearted frivolity contrasts starkly with the backdrop of the death and horror of Auschwitz.

There is one line in particular, and I’m sure you’ll know it when you read it, which made my chest sink like a lead weight and has stuck in my head since I finished the book. I won’t quote it here, as it wouldn’t convey the horror with which it is spoken, but suffice to say, this isn’t an easy story to read.

“His mother he can see perfectly. But how do you say goodbye to your mother? The person who gave you breath, who taught you how to live?”  

The Tattooist of Auschwitz Controversy

It would be remiss of me not to highlight the controversy surrounding purported inaccuracies in the book, but ultimately, The Tattooist of Auschwitz tells the recollections of a horrific period of human history from the recollections of one man.

A spokesperson for author Heather Morris told the Guardian: “The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a novel based on the personal recollections and experiences of one man. It is not, and has never claimed to be, an official history. If it inspires people to engage with the terrible events of the Holocaust more deeply, then it will have achieved everything that Lale himself wished for.”

Wrap Up

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is one man’s intimate tale of his time as the Tattooist of Auschwitz and the horrors which surrounded him. Lale Sokolov provides a unique account of the Holocaust which is very different in perspective to comparable works, such as Schindler’s Ark. In The Tattooist, we have the story of an ordinary young man, ripped away from his family, forced to deal with a situation in which not only is his life threatened, but he is also forced to carry out unspeakable acts on behalf of his captors. His choice is to work with them or face death.

If this were a review I’d give The Tattooist of Auschwitz lots of points.

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