I bet you’re the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked back out of it – Heather Morris.
When I visited the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam, all I kept thinking was how surreal the Holocaust is. It is as though my brain cannot comprehend the mass genocide that occurred decades ago. No matter how many times I see the black and white photos and the videos of packed trains pulling away, I cannot compute that this tragic event took the hundreds of thousands of lives. It is almost too much to bear, and that is from someone who has no physical tie to anyone who were imprisoned at the concentration camps across Europe. I think that I needed to read somebody’s story. I have listened to stories, watched the documentaries, seen the films, but I have never read about it. When I read something, it feels more real than seeing it on screen. Through books we imagine the emotions, create them with our mind until they mingle together and become our own. We see the setting in our own mind, an imaginary projection of the world from so long ago. This is why I wanted to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz. I wanted to experience it for myself.
Without saying too much about the story itself (I truly believe you need to read this for yourself), it is based on the powerful true story of Lale Sokolov. He is a Jew who was taken to Auschwitz in 1942. He does not know his fate, but he dresses proudly, keeps his head high, and believes he will survive anything that comes to him. He is a beacon of light to those around him – a strong young man with his head set on survival – throughout his story. From the first train ride – stuffed with Jews, smells and little room to breathe – to the prison blocks and the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He becomes a saviour, but he is also the person who marks them with the numbers that will forever remind them of their prison sentence. He is the Tätowierer.
Lale is set for survival. In doing so, he switches off emotions that would make you feel sick; he watches as people are dragged from their posts, shot in the back, thrown onto carts. He watches screaming mothers whose children are ripped from their arms. He cannot do anything, cannot risk his life so it is better to look away. If he began to feel again, he would feel too much. He would never survive. But, not when it comes to Gita. She is seventeen when she is taken to Auschwitz, eighteen when Lale sees her for the very first time and tattoos her number that would become her identifier. It is a tale of love, of doing whatever you can in order to wake up the next morning.
The main thing that I want to express in this review is the emotion I felt when I read the pages. It took me two sittings: two flights. I read the entire book, cover to cover. There is so much more I wish was in this book, solely because I want to know every tiny detail of Lale and Gita’s life, of their horrific imprisonment, or their survival. The way Heather Morris writes this book is simple, straight to the point, without the use of much emotive language, similar to that of a biography – which is effectively what this is. Within its simplicity, the casual words of shotgun and screams and bullets, it becomes terrifying. Perhaps it is written this way because this is how Lale survived: compartmentalising and doing everything he possibly could in order to make himself a free man, whilst hiding his fear tightly within himself.
With the horror of the gas chambers, the ovens and fire pits, as well as the firing wall, it is hard to imagine anybody to have a smile on their face, light in their eyes, or a giggle in their throats. It is hard to imagine that children played, running in circles on a piece of ground that was their prison, that the elders told stories of their youth, their faith, that a couple in love could hide in secret and be content with each other. All we think of when we hear Holocaust is a living nightmare. We think of death, of murder, of illness and fatigue, of torture. We can never imagine that in a place so dark, there would be light. This book is hopeful. Lale is that beacon of hope for all of his peers.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz has made me want to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland this year. It has always been a piece of history that I want to experience for myself in person, but it has pushed me to want to learn more and understand and appreciate the lives of those thousands who were lost because of one man.
This book is one that everybody should have on their bookshelf alongside The Diary of Anne Frank.
Have you read it yet?
Love, Faye xo