I regularly review educational books on my site and whilst this post was originally intended to be another review I have decided to go beyond the story in The tattooist of Auschwitz to discuss the historical context of the novel in addition to the central story. The tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is based on the true story of Holocaust survivors Lale and Gita Sokolov. The story is about how they met and fell in love in a concentration camp. It has become one of the bestselling and most talked about novels of 2018.
I became aware of this book through friends, colleagues and social media. I really enjoy reading books that are highly recommended through word of mouth. When a novel has become so well-known in such a short period of time there can also be a sense of pressure and high expectation with the book. I remember reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before Harry Potter became hugely popular and famous – I didn’t read the book with any expectations. I read that book as a child, completely surprised and blown away by a book that I didn’t have any expectations of which added to my immense enjoyment and excitement. Despite the pressure this book did not disappoint.
Most people I have spoken to that have read The tattooist of Auschwitz have claimed to do so in one or two days because they could not put the book down. I did read the book in two days. Everyone loves it when they find a book that they simply don’t want to stop reading because it is so enthralling – this is one of those books. It is consuming, when I wasn’t reading the book I was thinking about the characters in the book or talking to other people about the book. Now I have finished the book I want to find out more about Lale and Gita Sokolov as their story is so powerful and memorable. Morris envisioned the story of Lale and Gita as a screenplay, which is no surprise as it is clearly a story that will attract huge audiences and is now set be to adapted for the screen.
Before I discuss the book and explain why I think it is such an incredible and moving story I wanted to address some of the issues and controversy surrounding The tattooist of Auschwitz. As a historian/history teacher I can (sometimes not always) feel frustrated when events from the past are dramatised for entertainment, take for example the upcoming film Mary, Queen of Scots starring Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan. I haven’t seen this film, as I write this it is not yet released, but I have seen a trailer for the movie (you can view it here) and it shows a scene with the leading actresses and their characters Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor engaging in debate and dialogue. It has been well-documented that Mary and Elizabeth, despite being second cousins and Mary heir to Elizabeth’s throne, never actually met. I have read this in several books and been told this by various historians in documentaries and podcasts, you can listen to this fascinating interview by Dan Snow with historian Kate Williams providing an overview of the rise and fall of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. The film suggests that the two powerful monarchs met but agreed never to tell a soul – of course, this scene was carried out to add to the entertainment factor but audiences will watch the film and some will assume that Mary and Elizabeth did meet although this is historically inaccurate. This can be frustrating for some historians whereas others recognise the film is for entertainment not educational purposes. The same can be argued with this book because inaccuracies have been pointed out with the concern that readers will not be aware of the errors or could be misinformed as a result of reading this novel.
Morris does state “every reasonable attempt to verify the facts against documentation has been made”. Morris did spend three years with Lale Solokov, this began in 2003 a few months after the death of his wife Gita at the age of 87 when he made the decision to share his story with the world. Morris listened and recorded as Lale opened up sharing his memories, experiences and stories from events during this period in his extraordinary life. Morris does also credit Lisa Savage and Fabian Delussu for “their brilliant investigative skills in researching the ‘facts’ to ensure history and memory waltzed perfectly in step”. Morris also spoke to other Holocaust survivors, including Lotte Weiss who shared her own personal memories of Lale and Gita.
There’s no denying that the author has invested a huge amount of her own time, effort and commitment writing this novel. Writing a novel based on the story of a Holocaust survivor must come with an immense amount of pressure and responsibility to do so with honesty, sensitivity and courage. Morris does argue that “Ninety-five percent of it has happened; researched and confirmed” but she also added that “What has been fictionalised is where I’ve put Lale and Gita into events where really they weren’t”. Morris describes a point in the novel where she placed Lale and Gita “together for dramatic licence”.
Morris makes her aims very clear, that she did not reference the war or events outside of the concentration camps because she “wanted to tell a simple love story. But one that stood the test of time”. In regards to the story around the romance – Lale and Gita were two prisoners of Auschwitz that met and fell in love there when Lale tattooed Gita, both survived, were reunited and were able to live the rest of their lives together. This unique love story, finding love and hope in the darkest of places is why the book has become a best-selling novel around the world.
Despite the effort Morris has made to make this novel true and authentic it has come under criticism in a report written by Wanda Witek-Malicka at the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center entitled Fact-Checking ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’. The report does confirm that both Lale and Gita Solokov were prisoners at Auschwitz (which I don’t think anyone doubted) and many parts of their lives can be confirmed by Auschwitz documentation. Despite this confirmation, a bold statement is made that “the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements on which the overall inauthentic picture of the camp reality is built.” The report then analyses key points from the novel and explains why those aspects are incorrect or could/did not happen. This report did address some of the questions I would have raised in addition to highlighting other inaccuracies that I was totally oblivious to. You can read the report here, although I would recommend reading the report after reading The tattooist of Auschwitz so that you as the reader can simply read the book and follow the remarkable story of Lale and Gita then reflect on the historical aspect afterward.
There is a relationship (a forced relationship) in the book between a leading SS official, head of camp SS Obersturmfuhrer Johann Schwarzhuber and a Jewish female prisoner Cilka that becomes common knowledge in the camp amongst prisoners and soldiers. I was surprised to read this based on the knowledge that a leading SS officer could be punished for engaging in a type of long-term, intimate relationship with a female Jewish prisoner during this period but I did think perhaps that did occur and a blind eye was turned. The report, however, has suggested this relationship has “raised the major point of concern” and there are examples provided that illustrate engaging in intimate relationships with prisoners were “treated seriously”. I won’t discuss other specific elements of the report as not to ruin the plot.
The report by Witek-Malicka does conclude that “the reality of war, especially the history and socio-psychological context of the concentration camp, has been fictionalised and poetised in this book”. I did feel this at certain points reading the book, whilst there is a lot of distress, grief and devastation in the book the main sadness I felt from reading this book was that this story of survival and love was rare in comparison to the stories of heartbreak, devastation and loss. That in itself is also what makes the true story of Lale and Gita so surprising and remarkable.
I have been to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau in addition to other former concentration camps. It is an experience that was far more intense than I envisioned. Reading this book made me think and reflect on my visit. I went to Poland in 2015 and whilst I knew it would be an emotional visit I was very naive. I was naive in the sense that I had assumed as a history teacher, someone who has read many books about World War Two, I was prepared for the visit and it wouldn’t be as hard-hitting and shocking for me as it would be for other people. I was wrong. I also went to Poland on my own, this wasn’t the first time I had traveled alone as most of my early twenties were spent traveling around Europe as my friends and family don’t have the same amount of holidays as I do as a teacher. Being there alone was also very sad too. I went to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of an organised tour as I was staying in Krakow and this proved to be the best option.
The tour guide for the day was incredible, her knowledge was so vast, she was able to answer all questions with confidence and wisdom. Whilst the tour guide was calm and collected she still spoke with a strong sense of empathy and compassion. I remember hearing and reading stories that I never encountered before that truly shocked and horrified me. I saw the original belongings of people that were prisoners at the camp. A suitcase with the information – Marie Kafka from Prague – made me stand still and think about this woman Marie. What was her background? Did she have a husband or children? How old was she when she was sent to the camp? What happened to Marie Kafka and her family? I was able to find out answers to the majority of the questions I had and the answers did not surprise me but saddened me.
I recall a pile of shoes and some of the shoes were so tiny that a small pair of shoes brought me to tears. I sobbed. I don’t regret visiting the camp because I did learn a lot and when I do teach this topic in the classroom I do so differently now, some stories I share with my students but others I don’t. I remember seeing other people crying, some had a connection to the prisoners that had been at the concentration camp and other individuals were like myself, no personal connection or relation but simply shocked and overwhelmed.
I don’t have any photos of me at Auschwitz-Birkenau as I was on my own and certainly didn’t think a “selfie” was appropriate. I didn’t want to ask anyone to take a photo of me as I simply wouldn’t know how to react or pose for a photo. I did see some young people, not aware or fully grasping their surroundings taking lots of photos and smiling but it felt wrong. During the tour, a tourist that was in my group asked at one point if there was any air-conditioning and started complaining about how hot and uncomfortable it was, as it was a warm summers day in July. The tour guide stood silent then responded that the prisoners who lived, worked and died in this very camp did not have air conditioning in the blistering heat or have any warmth during the harsh winters. It was a brutal yet necessary reality check.
Back to the book…the reader knows from the beginning of the book that Lale, the tattooist or tätowierer of Auschwitz does live to tell his story but the plot of the story is how is he able to survive? There is also a fear for other characters in the story and whether or not they will survive. There is an insight into some of the bleak realities of the concentration camp. I found it interesting to read about the way prisoners interacted with each other, how they were bonded by this horrific experience and how even in such a dark place love can still exist and even flourish.
The infamous Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele is featured throughout the story, when he is introduced in the novel a shiver ran down my spine as I was aware of the SS physician known for his inhumane medical experiments and treatments but other readers may not be familiar with Mengele. The fact-checking report does discuss the role of Mengele in this book highlighting an inaccuracy but again I won’t spoil a storyline. Despite the Nazis being meticulous for recording and documenting what happened in the camps I do believe that the story Lale retells in the novel about what happened to his friend Leon could very likely be true but I do not know that for sure and there appears to be no documented evidence of this.
Lale is a very likable person and even though he does things that he was clearly ashamed of the reader can understand his reasons for doing so. In this sad story, humor is injected at times for example when the prisoners are forced to play the Nazi soldiers, taking on the SS in a game of football but I am sure you can guess who won that game! There is a nervous tension throughout the book as you hope and want all the individuals that Lale encounters to survive as he does but sadly they don’t. I was reading this book at one point in a coffee shop with a hot chocolate and slice of cake. I read about how Lale was smuggling food to give to starving prisoners that were his friends and I felt a pang of guilt. I realised I shouldn’t feel guilty but instead grateful and reading about the horrific experiences of others can really provide perspective and gratitude. This book is unusual considering it is a story based in a concentration camp but has hope and love throughout and actually ends with an ending that the main characters at one point in the story could only dream of.
As mentioned already, for me the saddest part of the story are the stories that aren’t included. The majority that did suffer and didn’t go onto lead happy lives with their loved ones. Reading about the characters we are introduced to in the story that never return I found upsetting. Lale is described in the novel as being like a cat with nine lives and that is what I thought as I was so surprised he was able to survive based on several of the events that took place that he was directly involved with.
I have been fortunate to meet two survivors of the Holocaust. I met Harry Bibring in 2012 when he visited the school I was teaching at as part of our annual Holocaust Awareness Day. The students, my colleagues and I were listening to his story hanging onto his every word. He was a remarkable man, with a remarkable story and he was also a remarkable storyteller. Harry fled to England as a child in 1939 with his sister as part of the Kindertransport organised rescue effort prior to the outbreak of war. You can find out more about Harry Bibring here and listen to his testimonial here. In 2014 I met Mala Tribich MBE, as she told her unique story of her time at a ghetto, then at Ravensbuck concentration camp before being transported to Bergen-Belsen where she contracted Typhus but shortly after that the camp was liberated and she was able to receive hospital treatment. These visits were supported by the Holocaust Educational Trust and the wonderful work they do to support schools teaching this difficult subject. Every prisoner of war from this period has their own individual story. Some stories are shared like Harry, Mala, Lale and Gita and many stories were never and may never be told.
The story doesn’t end in 1945 for Lale and Gita, although they are reunited but life in Slovakia post World War Two (from Nazi occupation to Soviet occupation) was once again faced with challenges but this is skimmed over in the book. I understand why Miller did this as she wanted the focus to be the love story of Lale and Gita, how they managed to be together but I wanted to know more about what happened during the next phase of their lives as they were once again in trouble, had to flee the country and eventually ended up in Australia where Lale would meet author Heather Morris many years later. Lale and Gita also had a child called Gary and his afterword in the book provides a lovely insight and perspective to finish the book.
I would and have already recommended this novel to my family and friends. This story is so special because it is based on the events of the lives of two resilient and brave individuals but the happily ever after ending that some people have taken away from this story is misleading. It is clear that Lale, Gita and other survivors did go onto achieve happiness, success and have families of their own but the stress, memories and trauma will have never left them. If it did Lale wouldn’t have felt the need to share his story at the age of 87 with the hope of this never happening again in the world.
You can purchase The tattooist of Auschwtiz here. If you would like to recommend any books for me to read, review or discuss then please do get in touch via my contact page or you can tweet me @87history.
References used in this post: