There are many books about the Holocaust or Shoah and many specifically about Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps. I’ve read a few like: “Fatelessness” by Imre Kertesz, “Schindler’s Ark” by Thomas Keneally, “And the Violins Stopped Playing” by Alexander Ramati, “Return to Auschwitz” by Kitty Hart and others. All are great reads but not easy because of the subject matter. Other survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl and Elie Wiesel also wrote memoirs of their terrible experiences in Auschwitz
I first became aware of the Holocaust , through reading “The Odessa File” by Frederick Forsyth, I guess I’d have been around twelve or thirteen. Before then, the Second World War had been playing with toy soldiers on the carpet, Rommel’s Afrika Corps against the British Eighth Army or decorating Spitfires and Messerschmidts to hang from the ceiling in Battle of Britain dogfights.
After learning about the Holocaust, “playing” World War II seemed less appealing. I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in 2004, I passed under the famous entrance sign declaring falsely “Arbeit Macht Frei”. What struck me about Birkenau was the scale of the camp, I hadn’t realised it was so big, when I’d read of the prisoners crammed into their barracks. I find it sad there are some today who still deny the holocaust ever happened.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on a true story; Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who finds himself transported to Auschwitz. Gifted with languages : Russian, German, French, Hungarian, Polish and Slovak, and after a near brush with death because of typhus, Lale lands a job as the Tätowierer (tattooist), responsible for tattooing all the new arrivals to Auschwitz.
Lale puts his head down, attempting to keep to the rhythm of his job. Don’t look at the faces. He takes the paper and makes the number…
Lale is focused on survival, so he takes the job with its perks of extra rations and freer movement around the camp. He is secretly able to buy extra food and medicines with jewels and money found by the girls in “Canada” ( a barracks where the women worked sorting through the confiscated clothes of the new arrivals). Lale is generous and shares what he can with other inmates. The spectre of death is continually present, stalking the camp, Lale seems to have as many lives as a cat. This is not just a tale of survival but also of love, Lale falls for a young Slovakian Jew, Gita, whose arm he tattooed. He vows to marry her when the war and its horrors are over.
I found the setting quite familiar from having read other narratives set in Auschwitz. Lale meets the Roma families, whose stories are rarely told in the many holocaust narratives. The Roma were assigned to his block, at first he is wary, Jews and Roma had little contact in the outside world, but “within days Lale has been made an honorary Romany“. Lale is distraught when they are sent to the ovens and only his colleague covering for him, prevents Mengele taking Lale away to a similar fate.
Lale looks at Leon and points to the ash now falling all around them.
“They emptied the Gypsy Camp last night.”
It is an extraordinary story of survival against the odds. We meet Rudolf Hoess and the creepy Dr Mengele but Lale’s main contact with the Nazis is through his guard, Stefan Baretski, a Nazi of Romanian origin, who is young and callous, and who murders inmates with impunity.
I was gripped by the story, so much so that I missed my metro stop not once but twice, this has never happened to me before whilst reading a book on Kindle. The story is heart-wrenchingly sad at times, as might be expected considering the subject matter, but the horrors though seen occasionally are not related as graphically as in some other Auschwitz books. This is a welcome addition to the large library of Holocaust books.
My rating : 5 out of 5