The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Book Review

The Tattoist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Published by: Harper Paperbacks
Published: 2018
Genre(s): historical fiction, fiction, war, World War II, biography
HB&W Rating: 3 Stars
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He wonders if for the rest of his life, be it short or long, he will be defined by this moment, this irregular number: 32407.

In April of 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, volunteers to be the one from his family tasked to travel and work in one of the German camps during WWII, hoping to save his brother from needing to leave his own young family.  He arrives at Birkenau, where it is discovered he speaks several languages, and is given the privileged role of the Tätowierer, or tattooist, permanently marking fellow prisoners with what would become the most powerful symbol that identified the dehumanization of an entire race of people during the Holocaust.  While tattooing the next group of prisoners, he tattoos the number 32407 on the trembling arm, and as he looks up to comfort her, he falls immediately in love with Gita, and at that moment vows to do what he must to ensure he survives to marry her.  He uses his position of privilege within the camp to establish an operation that trades the money and jewels from murdered Jews for food and medicine for his fellow prisoners, risking his own life to do so.  A tale of hope, courage, and humanity in the face of the bleakest of circumstances, this novel is based on a true story, taking much of the dialog verbatim from Lale himself, as he retold his story to author Heather Morris.

To save one is to save the world.

This review was hard to write, and also hard to rate the book overall.  I wanted to like this book.  I wanted to LOVE this book, really.  But honestly, I didn’t.  It was just okay for me.  The story, a biography of sorts, as it is based on a true story chronicles the imprisonment of Lale Eisenberg, a Jewish Slovak, who became the Tätowierer of Birkenau and Auschwitz and who fell in love with a woman in the bleakest of circumstances.  It is a shining story of hope and the enduring power of love.  As a WWII story about the Holocaust, a genre that has become increasingly more popular as of late, with the debut of such novels as “The Nightingale” and “All The Light We Cannot See,” and a genre that I tend to gravitate toward, the story of Lale and Gita fell flat for me.  I may be in the minority here, but the story was told in a choppy sort of way that made it hard for me to follow in any sort of cohesive manner.  I read in the author’s afterward that the author’s first incarnation of this story was as a screen play, as that was her profession, but then it was adapted to become a novel instead.  Reading that information made the author’s writing style make more sense, but it isn’t a screenplay, and the author was unequipped to translate it to a novel in my opinion.  The writing itself seemed a bit pedestrian, the words themselves not used to their full potential to make us really feel this story.  It really was just too confusing to follow some of the author’s transitions from past to present, from one scene to the next, written in ways that may flow well on the screen, but not in a novel.

From the afterword, we also learn that the author met with Lale himself over the course of three years, during which time he became more that just the subject of her screenplay, but he became her friend.  It seemed to me, given this information, that the flat, two-dimensional character of Lale in her story did such a disservice to her friend, and Gita never came off the page for me at all.

Lale’s story was pretty phenomenal, and I just wish that the author would have done it better justice.  I have read on Goodreads that they are exploring making this into a movie, and I hope they do.  I think that Lale and Gita’s story has the potential to be so much more as a movie than it did as it was written in this novel.  I wish the author the best of luck with this and I would definitely buy a ticket to see it.

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