Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Love in the time of tragedy is the most sacred form of love.  

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris tells the story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who was plunged into the horrors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death concentration camp meant as the culmination of the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany.  The killing of some six million Jews marked one, if not the most tragic time in the history of mankind. It is almost always inevitable to grieve for such human conditions while celebrating the remarkable tales of those who survived the savagery of the Holocaust.  Lale Sokolov’s journey was no exception. From his sheer optimism to an intense transition to hatred against his circumstances and the Nazis, Lale’s narrative brought us to the power of love and how small acts of kindness and bravery amidst the harrowing atrocities he endured led to his survival and that of other prisoners.

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

POV, Writing Style & Atmosphere

The author made use of the third-person omniscient POV allowing the readers to identify with the protagonist through his backstory and discourses.  It was kind of surprising that the novel was an easy read compared with other historical fiction novels that reveal beautiful exposition and flowery narration. Yet, Morris’ descriptive writing helped made the characters interesting and identifiable owing to the novel’s intriguing plot.  The novel’s atmosphere is grim and sad but historically authentic.

As much as there are riveting and suspenseful scenes in the novel, I felt the story didn’t eventually get the finale it had been building towards all the way.  Lale Sokolov’s story was truly sad and heart-wrenching but worthy of admiration. However, I didn’t encounter moments of profound intensity and emotion as I normally would have after reading historical fiction novels like Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” and Amor Towles “A Gentleman in Moscow”.  These novels were written beautifully using detailed imagery and lyrical description. The narrative of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” may be engaging as one would not find it hard to read yet, I found myself yearning for more embellished writing that can add more depth to the novel’s foreboding atmosphere.  The writing is bland for my taste and the anticipation was not granted justice in the end. The ending felt too abrupt despite the interwoven storylines. The extenuating feature of the novel appears to be the fate of both Lale and Gita who found love amidst their situation but even the much-anticipated denouement fell short of expectations.  

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” explored the harrowing events during the World War II genocide of the European Jews from the point of view of one surviving prisoner.  It delved into the opposite extremes of human behavior: good vs evil. The readers are given yet another angle of what transpired during the Holocaust, this time giving emphasis to a love story that seems inappropriate at a time like this. Notwithstanding the atrocities of the German soldiers and the seemingly hopeless morality of the prisoners, the book embodies how humans are willed to survive by simply realizing an internal purpose that seeks to preserve others.  How one’s willingness to survive is in itself a form of defiance against the cruelty of the Germans. Morris has also given the readers a picture of how small acts of kindness and selflessness could save lives. Lale’s impulse to help others by providing extra food rations while inspiring optimism to others became the life and soul of this book.  

Overall, despite flaws in the writing,  this is an inspiring novel that seeks to restore faith in humanity.  It sends a clear message of hope and encouragement in difficult times.  This also serves as an unequivocal proof that Holocaust stories will continue to be relevant as no single account is enough to remind us of the horrific tragedies of the Holocaust that brought out conflicting human emotions, adverse behaviors, and heroic acts of sacrifice. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Author: Heather Morris

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 288 pages

Publisher: Harper (September 4, 2018)

ISBN-10: 006287067X

ISBN-13: 978-0062870674

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