On the flyleaf Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz is ‘based on the powerful true story of Lale Sokolov’. You see that kind of affirmation attached to film titles. Lion, for example, was based on the screenplay of a book by Saroo Brierly and Larry Buttrose and it’s Saroo’s story that is told. Morris’s book is based on the screenplay she wrote based on the life of Lale Sokolov (Ludwig Eisenberg). Gita (Gisela Fuharmannova [Furnam]) also features as the love interest. The reader knows before reading the book that both survive the Nazi concentration camps. So this should be a life affirming book on the model of Ellie Wiesel’s Night and it’s worth quoting Wiesel here.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget the smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the will to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.
The problem I have with Heather Morris’s book is I find it forgettable. It’s a remarkable story of love and survival spanning countries and continents. We are at the heart of the Nazi genocide that killed six million Jews and millions of others. Lale was transported to Auschwitz on 13th April 1942 and his number was 34 407. Low numbers were a mark of success and it was Lale’s job to tattoo numbers on others. Gita was transported on the same day from Slovakia and her number 34 902 indicates they were on the same consignment of cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz. Think about that. Lale would be tattooing increasingly long numbers 6 666 666 before both of them escaped to the advancing Russians. In between their low numbers and the high numbers that follow is human ash. Those that have been forgotten and this book seek to commemorate.
My problem with reading it can be summed up with this sentence take from an extract set in May 1943. ‘The selection process is taking place a small distance away.’ That jars with me. It should read ‘short distance away’.
The passage goes on,
‘They are too busy to pay attention to it. An arm and a piece of paper appear before them and they do their job. Over and over again. These prisoners are unusually quiet, perhaps sensing evil in the air.’
People that have been starved, beaten, stuffed into a cattle truck with no water or food, with not enough air and have to stand and pee and shit themselves, standing among the screams of those that die and are left among them. People that are shot and babies ripped from their arms. People that are ripped apart by guard dogs. These are not people that sense evil in the air. They are living it.
‘Lale looks up at Leon, who has turned pale. Barteski materialises behind them.
‘What do you think of our new doctor?’
‘Didn’t really introduce himself,’ murmurs Lale.
Barteski laughs. ‘This is one doctor you don’t want to be introduced to, trust me. I’m scared of him. The guys a creep.’
‘Do you know what he’s called?’
‘Mengele, Herr Doktor Josef Mengele. You should remember that name, Tatowierer.’
In the film version of this after the appearance of Doktor Mengele there’d be scary music. Here no need for scary music. It reads like a film script to me. Scratch the surface of the characters and you get more surface. Barteski in particular lacks depth. He’s not a character, he’s an ethnic German that arrived in Berlin and joined the Nazis Party and convicted mass murder. Here he talks like an American, ‘that guys a creep,’ and although he does commit the odd murder the way Lale manipulates him make him sound like a knockabout kind of guy you’d find in Abbot and Costello.
Jargon-filled prose is a kind of authorial self-harming. Here we have Lale going weak at the knees when he sees or meets or makes love to Gita. Cliché city. It gives me no pleasure to say authenticity deserves better.