“Hope begins in the dark,
The stubborn hope that if you just
Show up and try to do the right thing,
The dawn will come.
You wait and watch and work:
You don’t give up”
–– Anne Lamott
Having recently visited the Auschwitz–Birkenau concentration camps in Poland I knew it was time to read a book that, due to the subject matter, I’d been putting off for a while. However, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, despite the horror and sadness surrounding it, is in fact a love story. One that shows, where possible, even during the most wretched of circumstances, you should never give up hope.
The author’s note at the beginning of the book reads, “This is a work of fiction, based on the first-hand testimony of one Auschwitz survivor”. She suggests reading some of the many detailed accounts available about the holocaust for those that would like further information on the subject. This story, however, in the main, concerns the experiences of survivor Lale Sokolov, a 24-year-old Jewish Slovakian who arrived at Auschwitz–Birkenau in April 1942. Lale becomes the camp tattooist, a position that affords him slightly better food rations and sleeping conditions than most. He hates what he does, “Tattooing the arms of men is one thing; defiling the bodies of young girls is horrifying”, but he does as he’s told because—well, what choice does he have? One day he spots a young woman waiting in line with her number written on a piece of paper. Shaking, she is obviously terrified but Lale takes her hand and begins tattooing her arm. Bravely, she doesn’t flinch, and when he’s finished she smiles at him. Lale discovers her name is Gita, and for him it is love at first sight. With a renewed sense of purpose Lale knows he has to survive Auschwitz, if only to ensure the survival of the woman he loves.
Written in close third person, this is an unsettling story. Having researched the holocaust whilst studying for my degree I am no stranger to the horrors that took place in the Nazi concentration camps. However, I’m also pleased to say, despite my initial trepidation about reading it, Heather Morris has written a tale about friendship and love, and above all else, a story of hope, which, unbelievably, even amongst the everyday occurrences of death, starvation and brutality, people still managed to hold on to. Well-written, honest and brave The Tattooist of Auschwitz doesn’t skirt the atrocities of the holocaust but neither is it too graphic. An engaging and powerful read including a beautifully written afterword by Gary Sokolov – Lale and Gita’s son – who growing up remembers a home filled with “love, smiles, affection, food and my father’s sharp dry wit”––testimony to, if it was needed, the shining strength of the human spirit.
Paperback: 320 pages