The Tatooist of Auschwitz (2018) by Heather Morris is not just another Holocaust account. Much like O amor nos escuros días de Birkenau it is an ode to love, which can flourish even in the most adverse of circumstances.
It is based on the true story of Ludwig Eisenberg (Lale Sokolov) who was born on 28 October 1916 in Krompachy (Slovakia) and was transported to Auschwitz on 23 April 1942 to spend three years of his life. An optimist by nature, we are told that Lale lived his life by the motto: "If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day" (p.262). And, throughout the book, we must give it to him - he sticks to that philosophy even when everything around him is moving in the opposite direction.
There is a couple of things that I think make this book stand out among other accounts I have read. First, the fact that it was actually written as a screenplay and then reshaped into a novel (Morris's first). It gives the story a cinematic feel. There are a few scenes in the novel that remain with you impressed vividly upon your retina with a dynamism and freshness that turns out to be like the breaths of fresh air Lale snatches in his first train journey.
"Lale strikes a match. This might be the final act of his own free will. He holds the match to the lining of his jacket, covers it with his trousers and hurries to join the line of men at the showers. Behind him, within seconds, he hears screams..." (p.13)
"Lale tries to separate the heavy, sodden uniform from his skin. It rubs and chafes, and the smell of wet wool and dirt brings him back to the cattle train. Lale looks to the heavens, trying to swallow as much rain as he can. The sweet taste is the best thing he's had in days, the only thing he's had in days" (p.15)
"Her eyes, however, dance before him. Looking into them, his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, threatening to burst out of his chest" (p.43)
"From his bag Lale produces a small piece of chocolate. He places it on her lips, letting her feel the texture of it, before slowly pushing it a little further into her mouth. She presses her tongue against it Lale pulls it back to her lips. Now moistened, he rubs the chocolate gently across her lips, and she licks it off with delight When he pushes it into her mouth she bites down, taking a chunk off, opening her eyes wide" (p.94)
Also, it is a Holocaust story told by a Kiwi, a New Zealander and that standpoint gives it some distance and restraint. Auschwitz is a place where death persists, but Morris manages to capture some humor, such as the moment when prisoners start to moo pretending to be cattle and suggest they eat the hay in the mattresses. Even in the deepest of despairs, there's room for irony. Ash may be raining down on the prisoners' heads, but there are gems hidden under the mattress.
In the fight for survival, Lale realizes soon enough that knowledge is ammunition that can be gathered and used to protect oneself. It won't be long before he discerns this very knowledge can also be a bullet that mercilessly pierces your heart. The same happens with the help provided. You might think you are lending someone a hand, and in fact you may be getting them in trouble (see Jakub's case, for instance).
"Lale has witnessed an unimaginable act. He staggers to his feet, standing on the threshold of hell, an inferno of feelings raging inside him" (p.30)
"Let's just say I took another step into the abyss but got to step back out of it" (p.148)
"He doesn't want to make friends. Not tonight. Not ever. He wants only silence in his block" (p.201)
"His memories of home have been tainted by his memories of the war. Everything and everyone he cared for is now only visible to him through glasses darkened by suffering and loss" (p.243)
There is an author's note at the end that tells us the story took three years to untangle. It was let to simmer down, and that can also be sensed in the reading experience. There is so much that is not told and is yet sensed. Take the sub-stories in the book, for example: Aron, Pepan, Leon, Baretski, Jakob, Cilka or Nadya are characters that feature for a short time but make an everlasting impression on us. So little is said about them, and yet we feel the connection, we infer their life stories, dreams and feelings.
Yet, above all, The Tattoist of Auschwitz is a love story, like that single flower waving in the breeze Lale finds in the camp or like the four-leaf clovers the girls look for. True beauty in the midst of hell.
To know more:"Two people desperate for the love and intimacy they fear they will otherwise never experience" (p.147)"He feels tears well up and fights them back. This is the deepest love he's ever felt" (p.196)
- Article in BBC Stories (08/01/2018)