Friday, 19 January 2018

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 (on 27th January) has the theme 'The Power of Words'. How words can make a difference and have a huge impact, for good and evil, in the past and the present day - through propaganda inciting hatred, slogans of resistance, stories written by those who wanted to survive (including those who didn't, such as Anne Frank) and written memoirs and oral accounts by Holocaust survivors. 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris reads like fiction but is a true story. It was published by Bonnier Zaffre on 11 January 2018.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
By Heather Morris
Published by Bonnier Zaffre (11 January 2018)

Publisher's description
I tattooed a number on her arm. She tattooed her name on my heart.
In 1942, Lale Sokolov arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival - scratching numbers into his fellow victims' arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. 
Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale - a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer - it was love at first sight. And he was determined not only to survive himself, but to ensure this woman, Gita, did, too.

My verdict
As I sit writing up this review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, my eldest teenager is in Poland, visiting sites of Jewish heritage and the concentration camps (including Auschwitz) with his school. He hasn't been in touch with us very much - not because he can't contact us, but I suspect because it's an emotionally draining experience.

Whenever I read stories of the Holocaust, I find myself getting very emotional. And while I didn't have any close family in Europe at the time (all of my great-grandparents from Russia, Poland and Lithuania were in London by 1910), it is still very personal to me.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is very much a story of survival. It's not a particularly gruesome account of the Holocaust, though there are many hints about the horrors inside the concentration camps - murder, rape, starvation, illness and so much more. This is a story about the evil side of human behaviour - the worst of humanity - but also the astonishing fact that love still managed to flourish and survive in all of the darkness.

The numbered prisoner tattoos are a key symbol of the Holocaust - and no job that anyone would choose to do willingly. Lale Sokolov worried that his role as tattooist would mean he was considered to be a collaborator by the other prisoners, as it gave him certain privileges. But instead, he put his own life at risk to benefit the other men and women at Auschwitz-Birkenau, smuggling food, medicines and anything else that would help them stay alive.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz isn't just about how Lale met and fell in love with Gita, but also about how courage, pride and stubbornness ensured they survived. It's beautifully written as fiction, even though it's a true story. I would say it's an 'easy read' but it's certainly not, due to the subject matter - instead, it's difficult and disturbing at times.

This is an emotional book about the importance of hope and is thought provoking and inspiring. Lale and Gita's story will stay with me forever.

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