Based on a true story, Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz tells the story of Lale, who in 1942, traveled from Slovakia to Prague (now in the separate Czech Republic) and then with several hundred other Jews found himself being transported a month later like cattle to the concentration camp Auschwitz I (later Auschwitz-Birkenau) under Hitler’s program that each Jewish family was required to ransom for slave labor an elder son or daughter in order to ensure the rest of the family’s survival. Of course, like many others made by the Nazi Government, and like so many promises made by King Henry VIII during his reign (1491-1547), the Nazi promise was destined to be broken by Hitler who did not live by the principle that a man’s word is his honor. While Lale’s younger sister survived, his parents were not so lucky. While Lale was in Prague, they were shipped off to Auschwitz where they were killed before he arrived.
After a brief stint of building a roof where he befriends two captured Russian soldiers, Lale becomes a gopher for an SS guard and then later the assistant to the tattooist (a French economics professor who is too outspoken for his own good). Ultimately, Lale replaces the professor, becoming the tattooist, who is the person who tattooed the five-digit numbers on prisoners held in most camps. (Not all camps used numbers; some identified prisoners by their names, a fact that I did not know until I read the book).
As the tattooist, Lale has his own bed to sleep in, rather than sharing a bunk with two or three other prisoners, is given extra rations, is generally treated better, is spared hard labor, and has more freedom. Although some may view Lale’s self-abasement as evidence that he was collaborator, Lale uses his enhanced privileges to make life better for his fellow prisoners. For his efforts, Lale ends up in Block 11 where prisoners are tortured before being killed for infractions, ranging from the trivial and/or unintentional actions to attempted escape to more serious charges. The block is notorious in that no one has ever lived through the experience. Lale beats the odds though with the help of those he has in turn helped.
In early 1945, both Lale and Gita, the love of Lale’s life, and another prisoner, leave the camp and eventually escape from their SS captors and reunite after their own separate dealings with the Russians. Lale and Gita go onto marry, raise a son (who wrote an afterword) and pursue the mercantile life.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is, as the book’s cover says, is a story of love and survival. Lale and Gita did what they in order to be able to walk out, though at what cost is the question. For Lale and Gita, theirs is a lost innocence, the interruption and destruction of their lives before the war. For Lale, it is a loss of faith and easy carefree nature. In its place was an emotional reserve, though as their son notes theirs was a marriage that was loving and warm as one could ever hope. In this sense, Lale and Gita defeated Hitler and the Nazis by passing down to their son what was stolen from them.
I listened to The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The narrator is excellent and was a great choice. The narrative is cohesive given the inevitable gaps in the story line and the disinformation and propaganda of the Nazi government that permeated the camp as well as because Lale related everything to Heather Morris near the end of his life after Gita’s death.