A co-worker of mine, who rarely has the patience for reading entire books, told me that he, his wife, and his mother all raced through a book, reading it in less than a week. I was immediately intrigued and put The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018) by Heather Morris on hold at the library. It’s a New York Times Bestseller with 4.5 stars on Amazon. At heart, Tattooist is a love story between Gita and Lale that occurs between 1942 and 1945 at the German concentration camp located in Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Tattooist is a work of fiction based on the real Lale’s life. As far as I can tell, Morris stuck relatively closely to what Lale told her. Lale arrived at Auschwitz in April 1942. Gita arrived a couple of weeks before him. They were both Slovakian Jews and were put to work at the camp. Lale was able to obtain the relatively privileged position of tattooing people arriving at the camp, which afforded him some safety and a little bit more food. Lale first saw Gita when he tattooed her arm, and he immediately fell in love. With some help, he was able to find her, and the two slowly began a romance amidst the evil, death, and uncertainty surrounding them.
Morris had written a number of screenplays when she heard about Lale, who wanted to tell his story. They both lived in Australia and Morris met with him numerous times over three years to learn about his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Morris first wrote a screenplay, but then adapted it into what became this novel.
It is practically impossible to set a true story in the desperation and horrors of the German concentration camps and not find it compelling. However, I was disappointed in the writing of this book. Considering the content, it felt surprisingly emotionless. Perhaps because this is Morris’s first book or because she normally writes screenplays, it felt a little lifeless. In fact, the novel often felt like a screenplay. As I read, I often imagined scenes made better by good, emoting actors and the set designs a camera could capture. There were plenty of horrifying scenes described in this book, including innumerable people killed and the tortures of Dr. Josef Mengele. However, many of these scenes were not given enough detail, time, and importance to feel real. The true hunger, suffering, and desperation did not come across in this book. I felt more emotion reading The Death Angel Doctor Josef Mengele’s Wikipedia page than I did reading this book.
In addition, the characters felt pretty flat. This is probably a combination of the majority of the story coming from Lale’s recollection and Morris’s writing style. Lale obviously felt some guilt at his “complicity” with the Germans by gaining advantages from tattooing his fellow prisoners. I think this could have been explored more–both his feelings, the feelings of other prisoners and his actions. I didn’t feel like I had a good idea of who Lale and Gita really were or why they liked each other in the first place.
Love in the midst of the darkest despair is always compelling, but I was disappointed because I felt so much more could have been done with this story.
P.S. ***SPOILER*** It stated in the Afterword that one of Gita’s friends, Cilka, was charged as a Nazi conspirator and sentenced to hard labor. I desperately wanted to know more of Cilka’s story and what happened to her. According to the novel, Cilka was chosen by the Auschwitz commander, and was repeatedly raped for over a year. As is obvious, she was not in any kind of position to say no. Did she actually do anything to deserve being called a conspirator or was this yet another example of blaming the victim? I want to know more about her.
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