SECOND OPINION: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Review published on January 27, 2018.

It’s difficult to believe that anyone could fail to be moved by this remarkable love story, with its origins in the horrors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. It is a story of survival against all the odds and in the most horrific circumstances. The moment when Lale, as gently as possible, tattooed the number 34902 onto the arm of a young woman, Gita, and then briefly exchanged a glance with her, was the start of a relationship which would last for the rest of their lives. After the war they married, eventually moving to Australia where they created a successful and happy life for themselves and their only child, Gary. However, it wasn’t until after Gita’s death in 2003 that their story was told when, through Gary, keen to ensure that his parent’s story was sympathetically recorded, a link was established between Heather Morris, a screenwriter, and Lale. For the three years until his death in 2006 he and Heather met frequently and, not only did she fulfil her promise to tell his and Gita’s story, but the two became close friends.

Descriptions of what life was like in the concentration camps, with all the barbarity of the conditions people were exposed to, of the inhumane treatment of prisoners, of the extermination of millions, are very well documented. However, accounts of the intensely personal experiences of individuals are far less common and that is one of the reasons why this story makes such an impact. One of Lale’s motivations for telling his story was that he feared that history would condemn him as a Nazi collaborator. However, a powerful message which runs through the story is that, when threatened, most people’s instincts lead them to do whatever it takes to survive.

Lale was aware that he was, relatively speaking, lucky compared with the vast majority of his fellow prisoners because his accommodation was better and he received extra rations. However, often at great risk to himself, he used his meagre privileges to help others by sharing the extra food he received. His motivation for doing this sprang less from a feeling of guilt but more from his innate empathy and generosity; also because he held on to a belief in “save the one, save the world”. He encouraged fellow prisoners to smuggle out jewellery and money which had been confiscated from new arrivals in order that he could trade these for medicines, more food and, occasionally, extra treats such as chocolate. Most of these goods were provided by local people who worked in the camps and were sympathetic to the prisoners. Nevertheless, many of his fellow inmates were judgemental and so he suffered inner torments as he struggled with his conscience. Reading these accounts it is impossible not to ask oneself the question “what would I have done in those circumstances”?

Another thread which ran through this story for me was the strength of so many of the relationships which developed between the prisoners. There were frequent examples of how, in the absence of family ties, it was as if friendship substituted for kinship. Expressions of love and caring and a willingness to offer support, were integral to the fight for survival, as well as being a way in which to retain a sense of humanity and self-respect.

This is an inspirational story but, as I was aware from the start that Lale and Gita survived all the horrors of their time in the camps, I think that the full impact of their daily battle for survival was somewhat diminished. I certainly felt moved by their story and full of admiration for them, but often my fears for their safety were more intellectual than emotional. In terms of their relationship, what I think I felt most moved by was his absolute determination to survive, to take advantage of anything which would help to make this possible and his desire to do all he could to ensure that Gita did as well. A major aspect of his philosophy, both when in the camp and throughout his life, was “If you wake up in the morning it is a good day” – perhaps a sentiment we would all do well to remember whenever we complain about minor irritations!

Throughout my reading I was aware that this couple’s survival, so often as dependent on luck as it was on any personal determination, was in such stark contrast to the fates of the vast majority of people who entered those camps and it is these unknown individual stories which now continue to haunt me. Apart from the awful suffering they endured, it is all those lost expectations and hopes which feel particularly distressing. However, as this account made clear, even the survivors had to live a life which was very different from the one they had expected to live because what they experienced had an inevitable influence on all their future relationships and experiences.

Heather Morris originally wrote Lale’s account of his story as a screenplay and I think that this is evident in her writing style throughout the book which, considering the subject matter, often felt rather too terse and spare. I am trying not to be too critical because I recognise that she was faced with a huge responsibility to tell Lale’s story, but I think that the style was part of the reason there were times when I struggled to remain emotionally engaged. That said, the story did move me and I know that it is one I’ll never forget. The experiences of Lale and Gita, along with the millions who didn’t survive, must never be forgotten. There should be no complacency on the basis that this was something which happened in the past because there are countless examples that similar atrocities still occur at times of conflict and war. We all have a responsibility not to forget the past, to recognise evil behaviour and to be brave enough to make a stand against it.

I can’t finish this review without referring to the very moving “Afterword” written by this couple’s son Gary. In just three pages he demonstrates how his parents’ capacity for retaining their belief in the power of love enabled them not only to love each other, but also to offer him such remarkable love and stability. It is a wonderful tribute to them and to their story.

The thought-provoking nature of this book makes it an ideal choice for reading groups.

Linda Hepworth 4/5

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Zaffre 9781785763649 hbk Jan 2018

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