Heather Morris’s novel based on a real couple who survived three years in Auschwitz should be an emotionally powerful story. It should wring you out as a reader. It should hollow you out with horror and sorrow, and keep a trickle of love and hope steadily dripping into that wounded space until you can’t help but recognize the main characters’ survival wasn’t just to remain alive, but to really LIVE. That’s what I wanted. It’s not what I got.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is primarily a love story. Our couple meets in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 when the main character, Lale, tattoos Gita with her number on her arrival at Auschwitz. Over the course of the war, their imprisonment and the daily horrors they encounter only reinforces their relationship, as the feelings they have for each other provide hope and meaning in an otherwise unimaginably awful situation.
Lale is a Slovakian Jew who thinks he has sacrificed himself early on in the camps to spare his family from being relocated. The book begins with his journey, crammed into cattle cars on the train to Auschwitz in 1942. He can’t imagine this work camp he’s heading toward will be that terrible: after all, he works for the Nazis and they’ve been mostly fair so far. This disbelief, or willful insulation, between Lale and the reader is a theme throughout the book, as he witnesses brutality after brutality but we don’t generally get his reactions in any visceral way.
This isn’t to say he’s unfeeling at all: when he takes an opportunity to become the tattooist, knowing he’ll be marking his own people, he makes a point to use whatever power or favor he has to help them. When Lale meets Gita, tattooing her number on her arm, he uses that little bit of influence to help her and her friends get jobs in the office (the warmest and least physically strenuous position in the camps). Between Lale, Gita, and their friends/acquaintances in the camp every possible atrocity is briefly mentioned. Only in one scene does Lale react as you’d expect to the ashes of his own people in the air: it’s a scene that saved his story for me, making him real.
My issue with all of this is the matter-of-fact casual way all the awful events are relayed. There is no progression of Lale’s horror at what’s happening, from that first betrayal getting off the train to the end. It’s never clear whether he has managed to remove himself entirely from what’s happening, or if he’s so traumatized by what he saw and did during the war that he can only give glancing commentary, or if he has relayed even the worst events with a softened description to the author. Maybe his emotional response DID just burn out early on for everyone except Gita and a few others: the Morris writes his journey is too flat to experience even the horror of losing his empathy.
The thing is, the overriding love story is told well. Morris captures the desperation of the two trying to develop this relationship in the middle of daily horror, and the erosion of social rules around courtship and sex in a situation where either partner could die at any moment. Lale and Gita’s love story is hopeful, engaging, and would’ve been a perfect high note to counter their reality. I enjoyed their story, I was just left…wanting.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a fictionalization of events as told to the author by the real Lale Sokolov. Ultimately, the story of Lale and Gita is lovely and uplifting, it just never got me under the skin. It wasn’t a book I’d read over and over, but I’m still so glad I read it. History needs to be heard from those who lived it, and The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a window to the amazing survival of two people who found each other in the middle of horrors that must never be forgotten.