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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Sunday, July 29, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz and eventually made their home in Australia. In that terrible place, Lale was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival—literally scratching numbers into his fellow victims' arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Lale used the infinitesimal freedom of movement that this position awarded him to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep others alive. If he had been caught, he would have been killed; many owed him their survival.

There have been many books about the Holocaust—and there will be many more. What makes this one so memorable is Lale Sokolov's incredible zest for life. He understood exactly what was in store for him and his fellow prisoners, and he was determined to survive—not just to survive but to leave the camp with his dignity and integrity intact, to live his life to the full. Terrible though this story is, it is also a story of hope and of courage. It is also—almost unbelievably—a love story. Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale—a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer—it was love at first sight, and he determined not only to survive himself but to ensure that Gita did, too. His story—their story—will make you weep, but you will also find it uplifting. It shows the very best of humanity in the very worst of circumstances.

Like many survivors, Lale and Gita told few people their story after the war. They eventually made their way to Australia, where they raised a son and had a successful life. But when Gita died, Lale felt he could no longer carry the burden of their past alone. He chose to tell his story.

My Thoughts:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is inspired by the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who met and fell in love in Auschwitz.

Lale’s first sight of Gita was her thin pale arm, held out to him so he could tattoo her prisoner number upon it. She was No 36902. Lale was the camp’s tätowierer or tattooist, and every day he inscribed the camp’s dehumanising set of numbers upon the skin of his fellow inmates.

In time, Lale and Gita would escape the camp, somehow miraculously find each other, and marry and move to Australia, where Lale would tell his story to author Heather Morris. It is an astonishing saga of love, resistance and survival, and proof that the Holocaust still has many more stories to be heard.

Heather Morris originally wrote this book as a screenplay, and it shows. The writing is spare and blunt, with a colloquial tone that may be inspired by Lale’s own voice. The atrocities of Auschwitz are described with detachment, as if Lale’s mind has seen so many horrors it can no longer feel any pain. This emotional distance made it difficult for me to connect with the characters and the story as much as I wanted to; I did not feel the urgency of dramatic tension or wrenching of the heartstrings that I expected.

However, the simplicity and reserve of the narrative voice rings true. Many Holocaust survivors find their story difficult to tell, and language breaks down under such a heavy burden of memory.

And the book is as much about hope and courage and escape as it is about heartbreak and brutality and imprisonment. Lale and Gita Sokolov’s extraordinary story deserved to be told, and its message of love triumphing over cruelty is one that should never be forgotten.

You might also be interested in my review of The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht.

I was lucky enough to interview Heather Morris for the blog this week, you can read it here.

INTERVIEW: Heather Morris

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Today I welcome Heather Morris, Author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
My mother always called me a ‘loner’. The fact that I just wanted to get out of a house comprising 4 noisy brothers didn’t occur to her. But yes, I spent more time in what I perceived to be someone else’s head than my own. Living on a farm, when not in school (where I was definitely described by more than one teacher as being a daydreamer) I loved to walk around paddocks regardless of the weather and dream of far-away places where adventures could be had. My main source of reading was the Encyclopaedia Britannica which showed me a world of exotic amazing places and people so far removed from my existence.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, not really. When my husband I had our first baby we were so poor, we both loved reading and until his little eyes could focus would read him the newspaper or whatever was available. I have a delightful photo of hubby reading the financial review to a 4 week old. Of course we always changed voices and emphasis putting on our big bad wolf voice when talking about government of the day. I digress. When the financial review was no longer doing it for the little fella we cut back where we could to buy him books and he was still too young to take to a library. I purchased cheap school exercise books, the ones designed for science with one side of the page lined the other blank. I took to writing a series of children’s stories, age appropriate, and my hubby attempted illustrations. Life got in the way, along with 2 siblings for said first born and it wasn’t until they, and I, were much older that I decided I NEEDED to write. Bit of light-bulb moment really. I just woke up one morning and announced I wanted to learn how to write screenplays. This is the medium The Tattooist of Auschwitz existed in for ten years.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in a small rural town in the North Island of New Zealand (Te Awamutu – only claim to fame – the Finn boys of Crowded House also came from there). I now live in Sherbrooke, in the forest, about 50km from Melbourne. Having quit the day job 8 months ago I find myself a full-time traveller / speaker and promoter of my book. And do I like to do it? I love doing it. I also love spending time with four small grandchildren. Always loved travelling now I get to combine it with telling my story. Nothing beats being with my family and friends, good food and good wine.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
Can’t call it a flash of inspiration. I was having a pre-Christmas coffee catch up with a friend who casually said to me she had a friend whose mother had just died and his father asked him to find someone he could tell A story to. She asked me would I like to meet him. I said yes.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Many people have said my meeting Lale Sokolov was serendipitous. In terms of discoveries in getting his story – every element of his story was a discovery. I’m embarrassed to admit how little I really knew about the Holocaust. If I have to name one thing, then learning that local Polish villagers came into Auschwitz / Birkenau every day to work; 9 -5, five days a week, knowing what they were building there, going home to their families, was a huge shock to me. I don’t know in retrospect why it should have been, but it was. I can now tell myself they were just trying to put food on the table and survive. Still!!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
In no particular order: Paullina Simmons; Derek Hansen; Michael Connelly; Anita Shreve; Tom Clancy; Sara Paretsky; Bill Bryson; Minette Walters; my very talented daughter-in-law BP Gregory; two newcomers to watch out for Kim Sherwood and Angela Meyer.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Simple writing. Though having said that I loved Bitter Greens so much, and there was nothing simple about the style or structure of that story. Short sentences work for me; I actually pause at every full-stop, and most importantly believable characters. Transport me to whatever place and time you’re writing about and make me connect to your characters, good or bad. I only seem to find time to read right now in bed, so keep me awake please.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
It’s not original but – Research, research, research, throw away the research and now write. I do not adhere to X number of words per day / week, I’m not that organised. For me it was find my perfect writing time. I knew I was easily distracted, helped that I was a ‘night owl’ so writing in the evening and into the small hours where nothing and no-one could distract me was what worked. So I guess my advice would be to find what works for you, commit to it, start writing and don’t stop until you’ve knocked the bugger off.

What are you working on?
My next story is about a character from my book, 16 year old Cilka. Well I’ve signed the contract and taken the advance so I guess I can say I’m writing Cilka’s story. I think my publishers would like to see a bit more content to be convinced. The really good thing about this story is my research is going to take me to parts of the old Soviet Union, San Francisco and Slovakia.

You can read my review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz here.

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