Sometimes it is best to read a novel without knowing much about it. At the last minute, I selected this audiobook for an overnight car trip, by myself, because of subject matter, the positive reviews (none of which I read), and the near-perfect length for my drive. I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of horrific tragedy inflicted by soulless perpetrators and the seeming implausibility of too many scenes. So clueless was I that I surmised this love story, situated in Auschwitz Two-Birkenau, beginning in April 1942, pushed the plausibility envelope just a bit too far, only to realize when listening to the final chapter and author notes that the novel is based on actual events and corroborating research. When I returned home, I further learned that Holocaust scholars, and Auschwitz curators, have challenged the novel for foundational historical, and even geographical, errors that, they contend, undermine the power and veracity of the story it contains.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, centers on Lali (Lale misspelled), a Slovakian Jew, who attempts to protect his older brother who is married and has children, by agreeing to serve instead following the order for the first Jewish son to report for labor, only to find himself thrown into a cattle car and headed to a concentration camp. Upon arrival, Lali immediately discovers the horrors that await, and is advised that survival hinges upon remaining undetected and doing his work. Despite this, Pepan, the head Tätowierer, a Jewish man who tattoos numbers on incoming prisoners each day, quickly recognizes Lali for his talents; Lali is multilingual, a skill that will serve the unique benefit of allowing him to pass on overheard conversations by threatening German SS guards. Lali is hesitant because this involves painfully and permanently placing numbers on the arms of incoming men, but he is persuaded that others will do so if he does not. Only later does Lali discover that he must also perform the task on women, but by then it is too late. He has made his pact, starting him as assistant, with minor perks, and later, when Pepan tragically disappears, the far greater perks as Lali is promoted to head Tätowierer.
The prologue presents the novel’s defining scene, with Lali emblazoning a tattoo on the sensitive arm of Gita, the young Slovakian Jewish woman, who Lali later describes as having just then permanently marked his heart. After constructing the back story of Lali’s life, the novel depicts the horrors that define the remaining two-and-a-half years of Lali’s confinement. This includes endless, and endlessly threatening, negotiations with Baretski, a brutal, sadistic, young, and naïve, SS Guard, who variously threatens, strikes, condones, and sometimes rewards Lali as suits the guard’s whims.
At one point late in the novel, Baretski describes Lali as a cat, claiming that it is otherwise impossible to comprehend how Lali has managed to extricate himself, again and again, from so many circumstances that would have doomed virtually anyone else. Each example is shocking, horrifying, and gripping. And yet, as others have pointed out, laced throughout are scenes that are alternatively optional, implausible, or, by the author’s admission, constructed for dramatic effect. These include Lali and Gita together as US bombers flew overhead (dramatic effect), repeated lovemaking scenes (optional), and three-way exchanges of a seemingly abundant supply of jewels for chocolate, sausages, and even penicillin, a drug not widely available at the time, and certainly not accessible to Lali’s limited contacts outside camp (implausible). These are not the only limitations.
Somehow Lali, the cat, survives again and again, apparently driven by his singular goal of living for and with Gita, further forcing her, even when faced with typhus, also to live for him. Yet although the novel depicts Lali, Pepan, Leon (Lali’s assistant when Lali becomes Tätowierer), Gita’s closest confidantes, and yes, even Baretski, as genuine, conflicted, dimensional characters, the one striking exception throughout the novel is Gita. Throughout the entire novel, Gita remains entirely uninteresting and dimensionally flat, so much so that it sometimes seems a struggle to comprehend “why her?” Although she is described as beautiful, Lali admits she’s not the most beautiful, even among Gita’s own confidantes, and, indeed, despite Lali’s repeated requests, he knows virtually nothing about her, even something as basic as where she's from or her surname, until their captivity is about to end. Despite fully three years interviewing the real-life Lale, somehow the Ms. Morris struggled to learn anything to explain what captivated Lali’s heart, and made him, and in turn her, survive the day to day brutality. We learn that Gita is capable of despondence and even anger directed at Lali, but even with her beauty, that makes it hard to separate her from some many other women whose arms Lali tattooed.
Separate critics have identified important historical anomalies: the author gets wrong the Lale’s name (not Lali), Gita’s tattoo number, the accessibility of penicillin, local train routes and geography, and more. Other presentations are also contested: the prisoner/guard soccer match; Dr. Mengele’s castrating male inmates; and the plausibility of Lali’s repeated, and high-risk, jewels-for-food-and-drugs operation, supported by women who collected what incoming inmates were tragically forced to abandon, and by a non-inmate worker and his son, whom Lali befriended, each with access to the outside world. One commentator described such trade as unlikely because everything in the camp was zero-sum. With respect, that seems hard to accept. In even the most brutal and dire circumstances, opportunities arise for mutual gain or mutual harm. And even if the novel is exaggerated, it seems quite plausible that Lali found ways to generously help those he grew to love or otherwise care for, and to reward as best he cold those who helped him.
The question remains whether this book—not quite a novel but also not a documentary—remains a piece of history. I think so, although perhaps not in the way the author, or Gary, Lale’s son, imagine. Lale knew from the beginning that he was doing what was needed to survive, and this included being personally responsible for inflicting intense, sometimes shocking, pain on women and men at a stunning moment of vulnerability—after days-long trips in conditions not fit for cattle, moments before the stunning realization of a literal hell on earth. Lali might well have rationalized, as Pepan advised, that if Lali didn’t do the work, another, perhaps less sensitive, person would. But Lali knew more. Almost immediately, he recognized that he might be rightly accused of gaining better conditions— better shelter, better food, special privileges—by virtue of his collaborations. Worse yet, he was well aware of the risk that he might just be asked to do worse, and under conditions in which death might be preferred to any alternative threat.
None of us can begin to imagine the choices we would make in such conditions, and none of us can understand the guilt and pain we might feel having made those choices after we somehow survived, let along survived and thrived with the woman (or man) we loved. Memory is constructed. We do not play back the reels of our lives. Forgetting is a crucial part of memory; it is an essential feature that lets us retain our humanity even knowing that we are, at best, imperfect, and that all of us have made choices or done things we later come to regret. For most of us, these choices never rise to the level of horror—Sophie’s choices—that confronted those placed in the dystopian nightmare of the Nazi death camps.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is not quite a documentary, and it not quite a novel. It occupies that treacherous place in between, based on real events, but with the stakes of becoming a focal point of understanding that which we are rightly admonished never to forget. And more treacherous still, it also borders on a form of entertainment. The novel, itself originally intended as a screenplay, will become a movie. Despite the criticisms, there is an historical aspect of this novel. Yes, it is a story of survival, making it through the camps. But really it is the story of how we survive the most tragic of circumstances, through the constructs, the memories, and, yes, the forgetting, that allows us to hold onto our dignity and humanity, knowing that none of us make the right choices all the time, and also understanding that no one—no one—should ever be forced to face the choices that Lale confronted.
I welcome your comments.