Title: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Book Beginnings quote:
Prologue: Lale tries not to look up. He reaches out to take the piece of paper being handed to him. He must transfer the five digits onto the girl who held it.
What has he done? He has placed prisoner 34902 in danger. He is protected. She is not. And still, he wants, needs, to take the risk.
Summary: Lale (pronounced Lolly), a Jewish man, is transported to Auschwitz-Birchenau from Slovakia in 1942. Since he has such good language skills he is trained to be the tattooist, marking the arms of survivors of the selection process with a number assigned by the Germans. One day he looks up as a woman offers her scrap of paper with th number on it and her wrist for tattooing. In that moment of human connection Lale knows he must meet this woman and get to know her. He eventually learns that her name is Gita. Because of his privileged position as the tattooist he is able to secure Gita a job in the administration. It was still a dangerous job but one where survival was more likely. Against all odds and many horrors both Gita and Lale do survive and both make their way back home to Slovakia where they eventually find each other and can finally get married. This book is their love story. A love story framed around the horrors of the most inhumane acts of a war ever -- the Holocaust.
Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz was a book club selection. It is based on a true story about real people. Even before I started reading it, many gals in the club were already raving about the book in person and on social media. For some reason, I felt less enthusiastic about the book. I liked the love story born out of the despair of the Holocaust, but some of the details of the story didn't jive with what I knew about events at Auschwitz, and other concentration camps and I felt skepticism creeping in to my brain. Later I read that I was not alone, that others, including the board members at the Holocaust Museum, were critical of the lack of attention to details. One inaccurate detail that really stood out was the number that Lale supposedly inked onto Gita's arm. It was five digits, but based on when she arrived at the camp, the number would have been four digits. (NYT)
In the author's notes, Heather Morris talks about how she had to play with details to make the story cohesive. It isn't a memoir, after all, it is a fictional accounting of a love story born in a concentration camp. The bones of the events are true and the details were added to move the story along. Conversations, timelines, characters were invented to tell Lale and Gita's love story. And it is a good one. Where some horrors were downplayed, others were in full view. One aspect of the story that I've always wondered about came into clearer focus for me...how could Jewish men and women could participate in the horrors of the concentration camps? Lale had to grapple with that himself. Was he complicit since he participated in the machine that destroyed and dehumanized so many millions of people? One way that Lale coped with his dilemma was to use his position to get goods and food to share with others to assist in the survival as many people as he could. Kindnesses offered were often returned later. We talked about this aspect of the story for quite a while during our book discussion.
In the balance The Tattooist of Auschwitz falls on the positive side of things. It is a loving story for sure, one that encourages hope and kindness and highlights the many ways we can make the world a better place for everyone, even in the midst of terrible circumstances.
|Lale and Gita. Photo taken many years after their ordeal during the war.|
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