My mum gave me this bestseller as a Christmas present last year, but I didn’t rush to read it. I had plenty of books to make my way through, and the other book she brought seemed more appealing. I picked up the other book, and from the first line, I couldn’t put it down. It took me a while to get around to reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz. That said, a true story based on the horrors of the holocaust was something I was always going to read.
A friend of mine read it before me and trashed the writing. He said it felt like he was reading a story written by a toddler. I thought it was harsh. No bestseller with two pages full of praise from national newspapers, international blogs and fellow authors could be so terribly written. I’d have to read it to figure it out for myself.
So, I did. I wanted to nothing more than to tell my friend that he was wrong, but I couldn’t. Sure, the story would captivate anyone with a heart and common human decency, but a great story can only go so far. At some point, we must judge lousy writing for what it is.
Human Interest? In History
It’s hard to find an appropriate adjective to describe my feeling towards the history of World War Two and the rise of Adolf Hitler. It’s not a passion, an interest or an obsession. It’s challenging to find a word outside of studious, but I don’t study history. I read it, and watch documentaries trying to increase my knowledge of the subject, but even this reduces the horrors of the Third Reich to nothing more than a mild form of entertainment.
We’ve relegated the rise of fascism to the annals of history, despite many people still living with the memory of bombs falling on their city. My grandfather recounts his life as a child during the war. The victims of concentration camps spread across former occupied European countries are still alive, as are there captures. An aged SS guard recently faced trial in Germany, for the murder of 5,000 people during the war.
Although we rely on entertainment to inform us of the horrors of the Holocaust, the truth remains at the forefront. Sure, we glorify the heroes, but the documentaries and television shows highlight the grim realities, and their portrayal serves to remind us that what we currently study with a morbid sense of enjoyment happened not too long ago and we all need to avoid falling into the darkness that gave rise to evil.
Who is the Tattooist of Auschwitz?
Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau in the spring of 1942. He’s given the job of tattooing identification numbers onto incoming prisoners. The role entitles him to few benefits such as ‘keeping him one step further from death,’ and access to luxuries he shares with other prisoners. He also starts a friendship or pretends to consider SS guard Stefan Baretski who allows Lale to see the woman he loves although he uses his authoritative position to keep Lale in check.
The book opens with Lale struggling to tattoo a number on a young girl’s arm, Gita. Lale would find himself in love with this woman and spend what limited time they have left together promising to keep her safe. He uses his privileged position to sneak off to see her and convinces his SS friend to get her a job working as a clerk. It’s a role that assures her safety. As the allies close in on Germany, and Soviet troops overrun the camp, Lale and Gita are separated.
Based on a true story, the book promises a real lesson in love and strength through adversity. It’s difficult to criticise a true and real story from one of the most horrendous times in recorded human history, but the story itself has massive potential. To critique the book, you need to understand the sheer horrors of the holocaust and the Nazi regime, which to me was glossed over in favour of highlighting Lale’s heroic qualities.
Who Wrote The Tattooist of Auschwitz?
New Zealander, Heather Morris wrote The Tattooist of Auschwitz. She worked in a hospital before being introduced to an elderly gentleman with ‘a story worth hearing.’ Morris originally wrote the story as a screenplay, and imagined it playing out on a screen, either big or small, before reshaping it into his published form. She lives in Australia. Her sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Cilka’s Journey, is out now.
What’s Wrong With The Book Then?
The glaring problem is the use of cliché phrases that litter the book from the beginning. The very first paragraph states Lale is dressed to impress after a brief description of the smart clothes he’s wearing. A pointless phrase. The cluttering of unoriginal phrasing overshadows the sheer originality of the story. They do nothing but state the obvious or cheapen the quality of the prose.
The prose itself is dull. It doesn’t set off my emotions, and I struggled to feel as scared or confused as a prisoner in Auschwitz may have felt. This may be due to the matter of fact style of writing Morris adopted for the story. For example, the opening paragraph does nothing but show. The closest the prose comes to adding a bit of colour is “stuffed.” When she describes the transport to the camp, it shows nothing that makes me as a reader feel claustrophobic. I don’t feel cramped, or the bodies emitting heat, there’s no mention of the smell. Or the groaning, or crying, or any emotion that may set the horrifying tone for the story ahead.
Throughout the book, the descriptions overlook the prisoners clearing dead bodies from the gas chambers and transferring them to the inferno. I understand that some audiences may find it an uncomfortable read, but it’s supposed to be a trues story. It’s what happened. We can’t rewrite history to suit our comforts. If the book wasn’t sold as a true story, but as a piece of historical fiction, would you accept a complete lack of description around things you’ve never experienced?
Where is the Characterisation?
The first chapter sets up Lale as a good man without any faults. When a prisoner falls asleep on Lale in an overcrowded cattle cart, Lale does nothing. When fellow prisoners try and speak to him, he does nothing but offers words of motivation. All admiral qualities, but nothing sets him up as a real person despite the truth behind the story. Lale feels flat, as though he has one personality trait, perfection. It feels as though the author deliberately tried to portray Lale as a pure hero. The male equivalent of a Mary-Sue.
Lale steals from the guards and gives to the other prisoners, and he smuggles in food which he gives away without any thought. While other prisoners struggle to survive, Lale seems to float above everyone else with an air of invincibility. I read a quote from a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, it said, ‘If there is a God, he will have to beg for my forgiveness.’ Such was the extent of the endless suffering in these hellish prisons filled with innocent people. Yet, Lale never loses control.
Even when the authorities send Lale to the punishment block, his heroic cover doesn’t flinch. It graciously accepts a beating by a former prisoner who was transported to work in the punishment block. Lyle never does anything wrong except break prison rules which no reader considers a fault. Anyone hungry would steal food, but Lale doesn’t even succumb to corruption through starvation and near death. He’s always willing to share.
He Said, She Said.
Much of The Tattooist of Auschwitz is told through dialogue and avoids the difficult task of describing the surroundings and hardships the characters face. The dialogue sounds forced and robotic at times and seems to run on for pages at a time in place of any real exposition or characterisation. This may be a symptom of its origins as a screenplay.
When we’re not told the story through dialogue, we’re still not shown the story through Lale’s eyes at all. We’re told what things are but shown very little. Not much is left for us to figure out or imagine. The book is incredibly easy to read, which is why I think my mate considered this book poorly written. But for me, there’s a lot wrong with this novel. It’s a shame because the story itself is beautiful and full of so much potential.
A Fantastic Story, Terribly Written
It’s hard to judge a story that deals with real and horrifying events. But reality shouldn’t exempt a piece of work from fair criticism. I enjoyed the plot, and it had plenty of natural tension, but I think the Author could have increased the friction with descriptive prose about life in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Without a doubt, the biggest flaw in this story was the lack of character development.
Gita’s decisions never felt justified because you never know much about her other than Lale considers her the most beautiful girl in the world, even without hair. All we seem to know about her is that Lale loves her. Lale’s single flaw may be risking her life by not loving her enough to stay away from her despite promising to keep her safe.
Cilka, who earned herself a separate novel, never discusses what happens in the office yet everyone assumes she’s innocent. The book never shows anything beyond that. The only insight we have into Cilka and her affiliation with the camp director come from gossip and dialogue between the characters.
Overall, I’d love to reread this story, written by an experienced writer. I won’t rank it as one of the worst books I’ve read, but I wouldn’t praise the text in the way various other publications have. It isn’t a critique of the real story or a playing down of the horrors of the period, but an honest opinion of this written version of it. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a compelling story that’s terribly written.
Thank you for reading my review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. My opinion is based solely on my own preferred reading and writing interests. If you have a differing opinion, we can discuss it in the comments to below. Alternatively, you can send me a private message here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more writing-related articles.