The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov and how they lived through the horrors of the German concentration camp, Auschwitz. In 1942, the German government, looking for workers for their labor camps, made Slovakian families send someone 18 or older for work details with the guarantee of safety for the remaining family members. Twenty-six year old Lale volunteered for this to protect his family and was transported to Auschwitz in a jammed cattle car with other Slovaks also looking to secure their families safety. Lale left behind his parents, brothers and sister.
Lale soon realizes in order to survive in the camp, he must keep his head down, follow orders and never argue. This carefully designed strategy enables him to become the assistant to the tattooist of the camp. Their job is to tattoo each prisoner’s arm with their identifying number. There is a small level of independence given to this job. Lale sleeps in better quarters and is given more food than other prisoners (which he conceals up his sleeve and secretly shares). When the daily transport of prisoners arrives at the camp, they are lined up for their tattoos. It is in one such line, Lale finds Gita in front of him, waiting for her tattoo and immediately knows this is his love.
The everyday life of the prisoners is described in detail. It is hard to read but the hope of a future beyond the camp and the will to survive are portrayed as equally as important in the book. Lale is desperate to protect Gita, no matter what the cost and manages in the nearly three years of their internment, to do just that. They see each other briefly in the central compound and try to find moments of time together by hiding behind buildings. Their lives and those of every prisoner around them, are rife each day with cruelty and brutality and the callous indifference of the guards and the SS overseers. But they survive each day. When the Russian Army is close to the camp, chaos breaks out. Gita and Lale are separated. Gita is forcibly sent on the five-mile walk to the next camp, Birkenau, while the Germans try to destroy all the camp records. Many women on the march do not survive. Gita and four Polish young women run away from the guards and make it to a farm house where they are temporarily protected and then sent on to others who further help their escape.
Lale is herded with hundreds of other men into a packed cattle car and shipped to another concentrations camp, Mauthausen in Austria. He is constantly thinking of Gita and how he is going to find her. Lale’s eventual escape and his reunion with Gita are episodes of bravery and love using the very words Lale himself recorded when he was interviewed by the author for this extraordinary story.
Review by Mary Ellen Wilson, Interlibrary Loan Coordinator
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