The Tat­tooist of Auschwitz: A Novel

  • Review
By – November 12, 2018

Heather Morris’s debut nov­el is based on the real-life love sto­ry of two Slo­va­kian Jews, Lale Sokolov (19162006) and Gita Fur­man (19252003), who were deport­ed to Auschwitz in the spring of 1942.

At Auschwitz, Lale is ini­tial­ly assigned work on a con­struc­tion crew. Because of his mul­ti­lin­gual skills, how­ev­er, he is soon enlist­ed as assis­tant camp tat­tooist and then, fol­low­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of the main tat­tooist, takes over that job. This posi­tion comes with a pri­vate room, extra rations, and the abil­i­ty to walk the camp­grounds with rel­a­tive free­dom, with­out risk­ing being shot. 

In Morris’s fic­tion­al­iza­tion, the cou­ple fall imme­di­ate­ly in love when Lale tat­toos Gita. For the remain­ing two and a half years, Gita works in the ware­house called Cana­da,” where the Nazis stored jew­els, mon­ey, clothes, eye­glass­es, toys, shoes and oth­er pos­ses­sions seized from Jew­ish depor­tees upon their arrival.

While many read­ers may have mixed feel­ings about Lale’s role as chief tat­tooist, his famil­iar rela­tion­ship with SS offi­cer Ste­fan Baret­s­ki (who was lat­er tried for war crimes in Frank­furt and sen­tenced to life impris­on­ment), and his role as one of Auschwitz’s more suc­cess­ful black mar­ke­teers deal­ing in rare gems and U.S. and British cur­ren­cy tak­en from new Jew­ish arrivals, oth­ers will find The Tat­tooist a pow­er­ful sto­ry of resis­tance, love, and sur­vival under har­row­ing conditions.

The ear­ly pos­i­tive response that the nov­el has received has less to do with Morris’s prose than with the sto­ry itself. Mor­ris is not a his­to­ri­an, and her attempts to mesh his­to­ry and fic­tion are not always suc­cess­ful. Still, the pow­er­ful sto­ry she tells dif­fers sharply from oth­er sto­ries of Auschwitz sur­vivors, not least due to her deci­sion to present moral­ly com­pro­mised vic­tims as heroes.

In late Jan­u­ary 1945, with the Red Army only a few miles east of Auschwitz, Lale and Gita, along with thou­sands of oth­er camp inmates, were orga­nized into what his­to­ri­ans lat­er described as death march­es. Yet again, luck was on their side. Both escaped from the SS and spent the last days of the war in Bratisla­va. They soon mar­ried and, fol­low­ing the Com­mu­nist takeover of Czecho­slo­va­kia in 1948, emi­grat­ed to Mel­bourne where they final­ly began to rebuild their lives.

Carl J. Rheins was the exec­u­tive direc­tor emer­i­tus of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Mod­ern Euro­pean His­to­ry from the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Stony Brook and taught cours­es on the Holo­caust at sev­er­al major universities.

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