With the abundance of Holocaust literature that floods the market today, one can be forgiven to feeling slightly de-sensitised to the horrors that are presented to us in each offering.
But every now and then a piece of work comes along to shake us up out of our sensory overload. A book that reminds us of exactly what we are meant to feel about Holocaust writings – that even the novels are not novels: they are all fact-based; all have some aspect of non-fiction about them.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is, actually, based on the life-story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who arrived at Auschwitz and was given the job of tattooing the newly arrived inmates with the infamous tattoos that marked them with their identity while they lived in the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It had never occurred to me before that Jews were tasked with this horrific job – yet another atrocity that the Nazi’s forced upon them. But what marks Lale out even more than his particular type of work in the camp is his determination to survive against all odds. And once he meets the frail, but beautiful Gita, who arrives in front of him one day, waiting for her number to be etched into her flesh, he becomes untiring in his ongoing fight to keep her alive too.
The writing is strong and although the subject matter is harrowing, I found that Morris did not tend to be over-emotional or dramatic. She tells it as it is and spares no details.
One fact that I feel bears mentioning is Lale’s relationships with the Romani gypsies in the camp. Although 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust – the largest group to be murdered during WWII for religious or racial reasons, other minorities were also persecuted, and the Romani gypsies were the second largest minority to be hunted down by the Nazi’s. 1.5 million of them lost their lives in what they call the “Porajmos” or ‘mass killing’. It was only in the 1970’s that the West German Federal Parliament acknowledged that these deaths were on racial grounds! And only in the 1980’s did scholars begin to acknowledge them. Until such very recent times they were largely ignored!
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a must read, especially for those who consider themselves to be Holocaust mavens. I am sure this will be added to the school setwork lists in coming years, going the way of ‘The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas’. It is a work that holds great weight, and gets 5 big glittery stars from me.