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Published December 16th 2017
A true story of survival and love during the Holocaust
Put this on your Must Read list for 2018 (Image Credit: Echo Publishing)
His name is Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, but in Auschwitz - Birkenau he becomes known as "Tetovierer", or the tattooist. Based on the true story of Slovakian Jew, Lale Sokolov, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is a remarkable story of survival, optimism, kindness, love and humanity. The story is made even more remarkable as it is set in the grimmest environment and circumstances imaginable, inside the most infamous concentration camp of World War II, Auschwitz - Birkenau.
The story begins in April 1942 when the 24-year-old Lale and his countrymen are loaded like animals on to a livestock train. Unbeknownst to them, it is the first transport of Jews from Slovakia. They do not know where they are going but have been coerced to volunteer to work for the Germans in order to keep their families at home safe. After being transported for days with no food or water the passengers find themselves at the end of the line, herded through wrought iron gates marked "Arbeit Macht Frei", imprisoned in Auschwitz.
It is here the nightmare really begins. Each prisoner is painfully tattooed with a number using a crude needle embedded in a piece of wood, and ink subsequently rubbed roughly in to the wound. They are then set to work constructing buildings in the camp. Despite the shock of his desperate circumstances, Lale makes a bold promise to himself that he will live to walk out of there a free man.
Within weeks of imprisonment, Lale is struck down with typhus but is nursed back to health by his fellow prisoners and Pepan, the camp tattooist. Due to his ability to speak many languages, Pepan asks Lale to work with him. Lale is reluctant to take the job due to the pain he knows he will have to inflict on his fellow prisoners. However, he eventually agrees as he knows he will perform the task more gently than others. Only a month after he starts, Pepan suddenly disappears leaving Lale as sole "Tetovierer", now responsible for tattooing all prisoners entering Auschwitz- Birkenau.
While it is not a job that he enjoys, Lale is able to use the small privileges that come with it to his advantage. He is given the tools of the trade and allowed separate quarters. He is given extra rations and some freedom of movement between Auschwitz and Birkenau. He manages to organise to smuggle food, which is the most valuable of commodities in the camp, as well as other necessities such as medicine to help others. With his charm, dignity and respect for others, Lale becomes a friend to all prisoners. What inspires the reader is his optimism, determination and his will to survive which is summed up by the motto he lived by, "If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day".
In July 1942, while tattooing a group of female prisoners, Lale meets a young lady named Gita and is instantly smitten. In an interview with the author, an elderly Lale describes the moment they met - "I tattooed the number on her arm and she tattooed her number in my heart". Their inspirational love story is a central theme in this book.
I found The Tattooist of Auschwitz to be unlike many other accounts of the holocaust which are, by necessity, bleak, sombre or grim and where it can be sometimes difficult to connect with the characters. In contrast, this account had the opposite effect on me. I was charmed by Lale immediately and found this book incredibly heart-warming in its optimism and humanity. It is a testament to the skill of author, Heather Morris, that you become so immersed in the story and feel such a strong connection with the characters. It was an absolute page-turner as you eagerly wait to learn the fate of Lale and Gita.
The story of how this book came to be is also interesting in itself. Heather Morris met Lale Sokolov in Melbourne, Australia when he was in his late eighties. Lale had kept his secret for more than 50 years feeling like he had something to hide. It was only after the death of his wife that Lale wanted his story to be told so, "It would never happen again".
Morris gained this incredible story through years of interviews with Lale and she hopes that in telling his story Lale eased the burden of guilt he had carried with him for all of those years. Heather Morris explains that the story took three years to untangle with visits to Lale numerous times per week. She originally wrote the story as a screenplay before reshaping it into this extraordinary debut novel.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is an unforgettable story that will stay with you forever. Fingers crossed, this story will also be translated to the big screen in the future.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is due to be published on 1st February 2018 and can be ordered from your local bookstore now. The Tattooist of Auschwitz ISBN: 9781760403171