Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

While this book is styled as a novel, in fact it is based on the war time experiences of Holocaust survivor, Lale Sokolov.  The author met him by chance in Australia and the two developed a friendship through which Morris learned his story and turned it into first a screenplay then a novel.

Lale was a teenaged boy in Slovakia when he was shipped to Auschwitz.  From the start we see he is very resourceful, but even he is no match for typhus.  Early in his stay he is left for dead but fished out of the dead body cart by the other boys he has befriended in his bunk.  This is his first stroke of luck.  He is then taken under the wing of an older French man who teaches him his trade of tattooing incoming prisoners.  This, and his command of multiple languages, allows him both a vocation and access to a private room (which was unheard of for a Jewish prisoner) and greater rations.

One day he meets Gita whose arm he must tattoo.  On that first meeting he falls for her and vows to survive the camp and marry her.  With this goal in mind he protects her, first by taking up a smuggling trade with non-prisoner workers in the camp which gets him access to food and vital medicines which save Gita, among others, from typhus.  He then uses his connections to get her a safer indoor job.

Over time he manages to win her heart and we see a great love story develop in unbearable and unlikely circumstances.  Just before the camp is liberated Gita is marched away with other women prisoners - it is only then she shouts her last name to Lale.  Prior to that she had refused to share any details of her prior life.

When the Russians eventually liberate Auschwitz Lale escapes and, using the wile he has continuously displayed, he manages to find Gita and the two are eventually married as planned.  After some time in Russian occupied Slovakia they eventually emigrate to the west and end up in Australia.

Lale and Gita kept their story secret for decades - in part because they feared they would be branded as collaborators.  It was only after Gita's death that Lale opened up to the author.

In addition to an afterward by the author which tells of her relationship with Lale, there is another by Lale and Gita's son which is also interesting.

The book is not long and, despite its heavy topic, is fairly easy to read.  I recommend it.

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