I just finished reading Heather Morris’s book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It was recommended to me (and personally loaned to me) by my Mom. I think she knew that I’ve always appreciated the stakes of a narrative centered around war or genocide. Not because of the blood and guts, but because of the way human tragedy highlights human dignity.
The story centers around a Slovakian Jew named Lale, whose family was pressured to provide laborers for “work detail” at a German camp in 1942. This camp turned out to be Auschwitz. And Lale turned out to be at the front end of a massive migration of Jews, Gypsies, and political dissidents. They came from across the German-occupied territories of Europe. And despite the chaos and horror of this “concentration” process, the German military was remarkably meticulous and organized. Part of their system involved assigning each inmate a serial number, tattooed onto their forearm. And Lale was conscripted in his earliest days at Auschwitz to be the person who tattooed the incoming prisoners.
The position of Tätoweirer brought some unique challenges: watching the cattle cars unload right in front of him every day… working directly with sociopathic camp authorities… overcoming his personal objections to tattooing women and children. But the position also brought some unique benefits. He was given a rank above other inmates, his own room, and certain freedoms that allowed him to develop a black market in the camp in which he exchanged jewels, currency, and other valuables for sausage, chocolate, medicine, and other necessities.
In the midst of all these happenings, though, the central plot of the book centers around Lale’s relationship with a fellow prisoner, named Gita. She’s also a Slovakian Jew. Lale finds her very beautiful, even though her hair was crudely shaved off by their captors when they first meet. Honestly, I was a little disappointed in the way that Gita’s character was developed throughout the book (that is: we, the readers, were not made to love her as much as Lale was). Still, she becomes one of Lale’s primary reasons for survival. So, for all intents and purposes, The Tattoist of Auschwitz becomes a love story.
The book bears some similarities to other noted depictions of life in the Nazi concentration camps: The Diary of Anne Frank… Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place… Schindler’s List… and Band of Brothers. Auschwitz is a horrific setting for a story, but it’s also compelling. I’m glad that I took the time to read this book — and that my Mom was thoughtful enough to recommend it to me — but I would personally rank some of those other concentration camp stories listed above a bit more highly.