A Review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Imagine you have no home. You have been released into the countryside in a country that you do not know and far from home. You have no food. No water. No home. Nothing. Imagine that this was the best possible outcome in your life. To have nothing but a hope of surviving. To have nothing but your life.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris was a book that I could not put down once I got started. I found myself reading it in stolen moments throughout the day and reading until the end once I got home. It has become pretty rare for me to finish a book in a single day on work days. I managed it this time.
This novel is based on the true story as told to Heather Morris. We follow Lale as he volunteers to go to a labor camp to protect his family not knowing that they will be sent to concentration camps days after his departure anyway. His sacrifice is for nothing. We ride with him in the cattle cars of a train filled with so many men that they cannot sit down or rest. They are not given food or water.
They arrive at a destination finally and are lined up at the gates. They have reached Auschwitz. None of them know what this means. They are told to leave their belongings, and line up to provide information — their name, age, occupation. Then they proceed to the tattooist who puts their number — their new identity — on their arm.
Lale realizes at this time that he will never see the belongings he had carefully packed in his suitcase again — books and clothes. Others brought treasures with them — money, jewels, other precious items. I cannot imagine having my books taken away from me.
Lale makes a decision to survive the horrors of this place. And there are horrors galore. Many times he meets Dr. Mengele. Mengele plays with his psyche and experiments on his friend. He sees the experiments as they are playing out.
He does what he needs to do in order to survive — he becomes a collaborator. He becomes the tattooist — the person responsible for mutilating the bodies of people who come to the camps with their new identity — a number.
We are shocked when he meets a girl, Gita, and we realize that he is able to spend time with her. His position gives him privileges that others do not have. Of course, these privileges come at a cost. Around him, people are slowly starving to death, working to death, or being put to death. He watches as they build the gas chambers and crematoriums. Before they are completed, he watches as they pack people to be exterminated onto buses and then fill the buses with gas to kill them. People are killed randomly in the camps at the whim of the SS members. He is surrounded by death and decay yet he never loses his will to survive.
Although this book is marketed as a love story, I found it to be more a book of survival. Morris chronicles the experiences of living in Auschwitz as it is built, at the peak of its use, and at the end, at its destruction and liberation. We experience the horrors of being a Jew in Europe during World War II through Lale’s eyes, and we experience the terror that came with surviving. It is hard to imagine what a Holocaust survivor went through, but Morris brings us pretty close.
It is hard to imagine the many tales that went untold. The stories that we will never hear. Voices that were silenced — millions of them — by the concentration camp machines. Entire families, entire cities, exterminated.
These people did not have a room of their own. They did not have an income. They lost everything. They lost access to books. They were not able to write. All they had was a hope of surviving — of not succumbing to starvation, hard labor, the whims of the SS guards who would randomly select people for death, torture, or selection for the gas chambers.
This was a powerful novel that makes me want to learn more. I want to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. I want to stand where they stood, and I want to honor the lives that were lost. Childhoods were stolen, and the people who survived the horrors of these concentration camps would never be the same.
Reading this novel made my own troubles seem small. I found myself writing “If Lale and Gita can survive this, I can do anything. I need to stop complaining about things in my relatively privileged life.” The novel also made me wonder about how easy it would be for us to slip into a similar atrocity. I reflected on the things happening on the border between America and Mexico. How we are putting those people into similar camps. We are hearing some stories of deaths — including deaths of children — but do we know the realities of what they are experiencing in those camps? Are human beings still capable of those kinds of terrors?
I came to the conclusion that we are certainly capable of these things. The trouble is our complacency will allow us to turn our heads and ignore what is happening around us. Would I have the courage to survive in a world like Lale’s and Gita’s? Would I be able to do whatever it took to live? I am not sure. Ultimately, the reader has to ask whether survival is better than death given the trauma and horrors that they experienced. I am still not sure how to answer that question.
This book is so much more than a love story. It is more than a tale of survival. It is a complicated chronicle of the horrors that humans are capable of. It is the story of what it was like to experience the tragedies and to bear witness to the tragedies of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It is a story you won’t put down, and I suspect it is a story that you will never forget.