The Tattooist of Auschwitz
The story of Lale Sokolov’s three years in Auschwitz-Birkenau was recounted by him to Heather Morris, in Melbourne, as he neared the age of 90. Gita, his wife of almost 60 years, had recently died and Lale was eager, before he joined her, to tell his story, so that “It would never happen again.” Morris was introduced as a potential biographer.
Then a novice screenwriter, she initially wrote a screenplay based on Lale’s Auschwitz experience, shaping it as a story of love conquering evil. A cultured and charismatic Slovakian Jew fluent in six languages, Lale had the trusted job, in Auschwitz, of tattooing the forearms of new arrivals – those selected to work, not die – with a number in green ink. That was how he and Gita met. He would become her protector and her lover.
You can see how a movie pitched with Spielbergian uplift might ensure Lale’s story its broadest reach. But Morris’s screenplay, despite some promising signs, failed to get optioned and so she rewrote it as a novel. All this we learn from an Author’s Note at the end of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and the story’s provenance and progress to the page explains a lot.
Whether from Lale’s own telling or through Morris’s fictionalisation, The Tattooist of Auschwitz elides the most horrific aspects of the death camp. Those consigned, upon arrival, straight to the gas chambers feature in the book only as ash drifting from the crematoria. Their absence is itself chilling, but the focus of the novel is resolutely on the living, those whom Lale tattooed.
It’s as a story of survival that The Tattooist of Auschwitz best succeeds. Morris notes that, while Gita was alive, Lale was reluctant to speak of his time in Auschwitz, for fear of being branded a collaborator. In the book, he and others do whatever is necessary to save themselves and those around them. Not dwelling on the source of the drifting ash is just one of those necessary things.
Lale Sokolov’s story is an affecting and important one, so it’s a shame that Morris is not a better novelist. Stiltedness and cliché undermine the story’s power and a lack of dramatic insight renders Lale’s character thinly heroic. The book’s former life as a screenplay is evident to the final page when, free at last, Gita agrees to make Lale “the happiest man in the world”. FADE OUT. THE END. FL
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz". Subscribe here.