The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on a true story, a story told from the Tattooist to the author. While much is real and true and even corroborated, fiction has been mingled. Therefore, while your heart is set on pure and perfect truth, you must, as a reader, be aware that this is still historical fiction. Harper Paperbacks | September, 2018 | Paperback | 272 pp
Lale Sokolov was a young Slovakian Jewish man who faced an ultimatum. One day it was declared that each Jewish family submit one male to work for the Germans or risk having everyone in the family taken. Lale is not the oldest but he doesn’t have children, and so he goes on behalf of his family. Unfortunately, he is not sent to work. He is sent to a concentration camp in Poland. Auschwitz.
From the cattle car ride in, where lives were first lost, to the initial introduction to Auschwitz, Lale was determined to survive. After only a few days, Lale became seriously ill and was put on the cart toward incineration, but was pushed off by a friend. He survived the illness thanks to the tattooist who gave him his number. Because Lale can speak multiple language, he takes that place of the tattooist and becomes a well known figure in Auschwitz.
He and his assistant tattooed every newcomer, including women. The first woman he tattooed was Gita, and he was transported by her eyes. Death was all around him, and he fell in love.
Using his position as the Tattooist, he was able to gain favors by other people in Auschwitze. He traded gems and precious metals found on the dead bodies of Jews for food and necessities which he spread out to his bunk mates and to Gita and her friends. It was an ugly trade, but he did what he had to do to survive.
All the while he kept telling Gita to survive. And if they both survived, he would marry her. Gita was skeptical – she didn’t think she would survive. Not when they were killing hundreds per day in the gas chambers. He continued to try to make her promise, and finally she gave in. She promised to survive. To live.
The love story is believable and poignant. They are not allowed to be together and so they hide, for only seconds at a time behind the administration building. There they find brief intervals of solitude and it is enough to sweep away the heart of the reader. In comparison, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Princess Bride. At one point, Lale is taken by the SS for interrogation. Gita assumes he is dead – but he returns.
“Close your eyes,” Lale says.
Close them and count to ten.”
“Just do it.”
One eye at a time, Gita does as she is told. She counts to ten, then open them. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m still here. I’ll never leave you again.”
Lale did what he had to do to survive. He bargained the jewels and precious items from Jews who went straight to the gas chambers for food. It wasn’t food for himself. He shared it among his friends and fellow bunk mates. But because of what he did, he never told his story until now for fear of being portrayed as a collaborator.
Unfortunately, that was a very real fear. The Nazis could have held your children hostage under the threat of death, and you would still be sold as a collaborator in the end if you did what you had do to keep your children alive. Hundreds of women who were sold to the Nazis as sex slaves were later identified and prosecuted as collaborators. A fact which is difficult to process. If they didn’t “collaborate” and instead rejected the sexual advances of the Germans, they would have undoubtedly been killed.
The Tattooist wasn’t a collaborator. He was a man in love who defied and tricked the Nazis at every turn. He was a man with a reason to survive.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is an amazing story of humanity, courage, love, and redemption set against the darkest of times. It is a stark contrast between good and evil, and the gray areas in between we all must navigate.