Love in the Time of Holocaust

The vast expanse of the tragic Second World War resulted to the convergence of many stories, of voices that were stymied by the pandemonium of the war and its many sins. It was, without a doubt, a dark phase, one that many would rather choose to forget and get over with. Misery may love company, but it’ll never stop the flow of things from taking their natural course.

The horrors of the war are unspeakable and horrifying. Despite these harrowing events, there were many stories of hope, survival, and, even romance. Some stories, unfortunately, were lost in the fires of the war but there are stories that survived the tides of time, including that of Ludwig “Lale” Sokolov’s whose story was immortalized by Heather Morris in her debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. 

Lale Sokolov is a Slovakian Jew who was carted off to Auschwitz at the height of the German Nazi regime’s blunder across Europe. Just like every prisoner, he was assigned and tattooed a number, 32407. Due to his ability to speak several languages, Lale was tasked to be Auschwitz-Birkenau’s Tatowierer (the German term for tattooist) even though he can barely tolerate causing pain to others.

On an ordinary day, he comforted a trembling young woman who he tattooed with the number 34902. He later learned her name was Gita but from the moment he met her, Lale knew that she was the one for her. It was also on that fateful day that he resolved to marry her and to survive the cruelties of imprisonment. Lale’s vision was never the other way around.

“How can someone do this to another human being? He wonders if for the rest of his life, be it short or long, he will be defined by this moment, this irregular number: 32407.” ~ Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Auschwitz is one of the most fabled and most feared concentration camps of the Second World War. Some of the structures of this feared place has survived the ravages of the war, monuments to one of the darkest phases of human history. Its long hollowed halls laid witness to some of the cruelest acts. Despite its dark history, in its silence blossomed Lale’s love for Gita.

Often we hear how love transforms one person. In Lale’s case, this is true. At the start, Lale, truly believed that he will survive the ordeal. But after witnessing the extent of violence in Auschwitz – some men were shot whimsically – Lale’s started questioning his resolve. It was at this critical juncture that Gita’s fate intersected with Lale’s. It was his unconditional love for her that rejuvenated his manna, that kept fortified his resolve to survive even under the most strenuous of circumstances.

But there is more to The Tattooist of Auschwitz than just a love story. It is a portrayal of the day-to-day events within the walls of the concentration camps. The violence within the walls is the antithesis to Lale and Gita’s story but also a reminder of the atrocities of war. Abuse of power, and debauchery are also recurring themes weaved into the tapestry of the story. Morris’ vivid descriptions transported the readers to the dark halls of Auschwitz, to its dreariest parts, to the heart that made it the place beat.

“Politics will help you understand the world until you don’t understand it anymore, and then it will get you thrown into a prison camp. Politics and religion both.” ~ Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz

It is the premise of the story that reeled curious and prospective readers in. As promising as the story was, its impact was watered down by one critical element – the execution. The writing was clinical and straightforward but there was barely any prose to speak of. There was an air of screenplay-readiness to the story that made it dull and lackluster. This can be attributed to the story being written first as a screenplay

The writing lacked the perceived sharpness of a knife that penetrates to the core of the reader. The erratic pace where scenes changed in a matter of sentences hampered any sort of atmospheric build up. There was neither tension nor urgency to the story.

Sans vestiges of real prose, it becomes palpable how the story is bereft of any complex emotions. The gloominess of the setting and the harrowing story, written by capable hands, could have easily aroused deeper emotions. What could have been a long-lived and hefty impact was made ephemeral by the  lackadaisical writing and its inability to stir the reader’s emotions.

The writing’s domino effect also resulted to a glaring disconnect between the reader and the characters. Although inspired by real individuals, most characters were underdeveloped and, for the most part, felt like figments of imagination rather than actual human beings. The lack of tension and urgency made the characters, and consequently, the story, fall flat. There was a lack of direction that did not help the book’s cause. One element that left something to be desired is the dialogue.

“Nations can threaten other nations. They have power, they have militaries. How can a race that is spread out across multiple countries be considered a threat? For as long as he lives, be it short or long, he knows he will never comprehend this.” ~ Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz

At the end of every book, the reader inevitably reflects on the journey.  Did the story live up to the feverish excitement? Is the journey worthwhile?

The message of the novel about the resilience and the strength of human spirit resonated all throughout the story. Sokolov’s journey and story is a beacon that sparkles brightly in the dark. There is something heartwarming about love blossoming in the midst of strife. However,  what makes a perfect novel is not just the story. Its greatness lies on the symbiosis of different elements. Take one element out of the equation, then everything falls apart. The same can be said with The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It was nearly perfect. But then again, you can never expect everything to flow in your favor.

Rating:

45%

I am going to play the devil’s advocate here. There are thousands of books about the Holocaust out there but this is not the one. Yes, the premise was pretty interesting and the characters were inspired by true individuals, not mere creations of the mind. It had the right elements but it erred on one crucial ingredient. It was bereft of prose and it was a pain watching the novel crumble.

The story had so much potential had the writing been executed better. Moreover, I barely made any connection with the characters. I heard that Heather Morris recently released Cilka’s story. As much as I was enchanted by the enigmatic Cilka, I am apprehensive about the execution after reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

Book Specs

Author: Heather Morris
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publishing Date: 2011
Number of Pages: 254 pages
Genre: Historical, Romance, Biographical

Synopsis

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tatowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism – but also incredible acts of braver and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money form murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed into her farm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful recreation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousand of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

About the Author

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Picture by The Globe and Mail Books

Heather Morris was born in Te Awamutu, New Zealand.

Morris spent her childhood in Pirongia, and was enrolled in a local school. She took her secondary education at the Te Awamutu College. Although she was an average academic student, she was an athlete, excelling in swimming, netball and tennis. She also loved reading and the Encyclopaedia Britannica was her biggest escape.

In 1971, she moved to Melbourne, Australia where she met her husband. They later returned to New Zealand in 1975. Pursuing her dream, she went back to school in 1986, enrolling a bachelor of arts degree at the Canterbury University. In 1991, she completed her BA in Political Science at Melbourne’s Monash University. She also enrolled in  The Professional Scriptwriting Course through the Australian College of Journalism and attended many screenwriting courses, seminars, and workshops.

In 2018, Morris finally published her first novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, inspired by Ludwig “Lale” Sokolov’s experiences during the Second World War. It was originally written as a screenplay. Morris credited her 2003 meeting with Sokolov to the great change in her life. In 2019, the sequel to her debut novel, Cilka’s Journey was published.

Morris is currently residing in Melbourne, Australia.