Did you find Roberto Benigni’s 1998 film "Life Is Beautiful" uplifting and inspiring, or did the very idea of a feel-good Holocaust farce make you slightly queasy? Where you land on that question might determine whether you ought to pick up Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a fictionalized account of the wartime experiences of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 at the age of 25.
Because Sokolov was fluent in several languages, he was given the grisly job of Tätowierer, painfully inscribing identification numbers into the arms of his fellow prisoners as they arrived in droves at the concentration camp. Morris, who spent three years interviewing the elderly Sokolov at the end of his life, originally conceived of her project as a screenplay. It isn’t difficult to see why: It’s a triumphant account with a resourceful, bold, and charismatic hero who eludes death time and again. Adding to its cinematic potential is the fact that "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" is chiefly a love story. Lale becomes instantly infatuated with a young female prisoner, Gita, as he tattoos her arm, and during their two and a half years in the camp he devotes himself to winning her over and doing all he can to ensure their survival.
The book’s supplemental materials, including photographs of Lale and Gita at various points during their long marriage, testify to the fact that the extraordinary experiences described in the novel are rooted in truth. The couple really did meet and fall in love (and, apparently, even manage to steal away and have sex) amid the heinous atrocities and the torturous deprivation surrounding them in the death camp in Poland. And yet, and yet: there is nevertheless something incongruous about this story of survival being framed as an Auschwitz romance.
Morris, in her debut, has created a fast-paced narrative, filled with drama and suspense, and there are passages that are genuinely moving. But one wonders what Lale’s story would have looked like as a work of biography or as a more complex work of literary fiction.
It is often said that words aren’t up to the task of conveying the horrors of atrocities like the Holocaust; at times, Morris’s prose, lapsing into cliche, doesn’t come close. For instance, for some months Lale is housed among thousands of Roma prisoners, and he develops close relationships with many of them, playing with the children and talking into the night with the adults. When one night the entire block is suddenly emptied, the prisoners sent to the gas chambers, he is overcome by anger and grief. “Lale is seeing red,” Morris writes, uninspiredly. “He is out of control.”
Some of the most complicated aspects of Lale’s years at Auschwitz are alluded to primarily in dialogue, leaving them largely unexamined. As Tätowierer, Lale worked for the political wing of the SS, meaning that he was, compared to the general prison population of the concentration camp – where more than one million Jews ultimately perished – somewhat protected. He slept in a private room, received extra rations (most of which he gave away to Gita and others), and was able to walk through the camp unaccompanied.
One day, sneaking off to see Gita, he tells her that “choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism.” She asks, “What does that make you?” He responds, “I have been given the choice of participating in the destruction of our people, and I have chosen to do so in order to survive. I can only hope I am not one day judged a perpetrator or a collaborator.” “You are a hero to me,” Gita replies, kissing him. In a novel whose two victimized protagonists are depicted as ennobled by their suffering, exploring Lale’s guilt over his collaboration would have deepened his portrayal.
In an author’s note, Morris describes the slow process of untangling Lale’s memories and gaining his trust. She describes the sense of responsibility she felt to “this dear man with his trembling hands, his quivering voice, his eyes that still moistened sixty years after experiencing the most horrifying events in human history.” In this well-intentioned but flawed work, she has succeeded in telling a remarkable story, if not in excavating its wrenching complexities.