Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz (YA Edition), Allen & Unwin, June 2019, 352 pp., RRP $24.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760686031
Imre Kertesz, an Auschwitz survivor, and a novelist writing about the Holocaust and its aftermath, won the Nobel prize in 2002 for upholding the ‘fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history’ (The Paris Review #205, p 224). The story of how the tattooist of Auschwitz, Lale Sokolov, survived is a moving account of one such experience. It is a challenge to live through those horrors and then manage to describe them in a way that is bearable and acceptable, but Morris succeeds in writing an accessible and sensitive account that will inform young readers of a dark chapter in human history.
Lale is a survivor first and foremost. At age 87 after a long and successful life in Australia he wanted his story told and approached Heather Morris who wrote this account after a series of interviews. She calls it a ‘work of fiction’, based on his testimony. Fiction while it speaks of universal truths does not always follow exactly what happened so, while some encounters and conversations have been imagined, the events described in this book are not in doubt.
Lale was one of many young people rounded up from the towns and villages of Slovakia and brought to Auschwitz to work for the Germans. They endured three years of near starvation, brutality, appalling conditions and the constant threat of being shot for arbitrary reasons. The ‘barbaric arbitrariness of history’ here is up close and very personal.
It soon becomes obvious to Lale that the way to survive is to keep your head down, do what you are told, and never ever argue. There are all sorts of people in the camps – the majority are Jews but there are also captured Russian soldiers, gypsies, criminals, and German dissidents. Each day has different challenges, but Lale adapts because he has fallen in love with Gita and desperately wants to survive to build a life with her when they get out. As the tattooist he has a bit more freedom and some extra rations. He even gets pay but can’t do anything with it except bribe his guard to buy chocolates for Gita. Lale is obviously a bit of a fixer – he arranges to get money and jewels from the women who sort through the possessions of all those sent to the camp and uses it to buy extra food which he distributes to his circle. He even manages to get in medicine for Gita when she gets typhus and to get her a better job.
Morris details incidents in a factual tone that does nothing to lessen the horror of what you are reading but makes bearable this insight into the lives endured by Lale and Gita and the others. This story does not judge those whose choices were later condemned after the war. Lale himself does things that are morally ambiguous but understandable given the circumstances. ‘Survivor guilt’ is also a factor adding to the complex mix.
Young people will find this a fascinating and readable account of survival, one that informs without exaggeration or melodrama and raises many questions about life and humanity. This special YA edition also contains book club discussion questions, a Q & A with the author, a timeline of the Holocaust and a page of further reading and resources.
Reviewed by Mia Macrossan