“I tattooed a number on her arm. She tattooed her name on my heart.”
So begins the touching and moving story of Lale Sololov, the protagonist of The Tattooist Of Auschwitz, a courageous, life-affirming and moving tale of finding and nurturing love in the most harrowing of places.
The novel opens in 1942, and Germany is in the midst of World War II. Sokolov, the titular tattooist, arrives at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Once he passes its infamous gates, Solokov ceases to exist: he loses his name, dignity, and freedom; he is given a new identity: 32407.
Solokov is also given a job as a tatowierer – a tattooist – to brand fellow prisoners with a series of numbers that would become their new identities. Though he is not too keen on the job, Solokov, like many of his fellow prisoners, accept his fate and learns not to argue with those in authority – his survival depended on accepting whatever is handed out by those in power.
While in the camp, Solokov thinks about his life in Bratislava: his job, his apartment, his friends – in particular, his female friends. Needless to say, as a young 24-year-old, Solokov has always had an appreciation for women. But he has given up hope of returning to his old life, of ever seeing his parents and friends again, or of finding someone to call his own.
One day, as he is busy etching numbers onto the forearms of his new prisoners, Solokov meets Gita, a fellow Slovakian who captures his heart. As he injects ink onto Gita’s skin (“Her number was 34902. As much as I hate what the numbers represent, hers is etched in my memory,” Solokov recalls decades later), something stirs inside him. He decides that he should do something to not only keep Gita safe, but to assist his fellow prisoners as much as he can.
Solokov uses his relative freedom of movement as a tattooist to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep the other prisoners alive. While it is normal for a tattooist to move around, it is still risky for Solokov to continue helping his fellow prisoners; should the guards on duty become suspicious, Solokov could be shot on sight or even tortured. “I am not just a prisoner in the camp, I am also Jewish, which gives them enough reason to dispose of me,” he says years later.
As Solokov and Gita get to know each other, and as Solokov continues to be a concentration camp Robin Hood, the Nazis continue to create an Aryan state by sending thousands of “inconsequential people” (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, people of colour) either into the gas chamber or the sadistic hands of Josef Mengele who conducts deadly human experiments.
As his love for Gita grows, and as he sees people being executed by the hundreds of thousands, Solokov finds himself having to choose to either be a perpetrator or a collaborator. To keep Gita and as many of his fellow prisoners alive, Solokov makes a decision – for better or for worse – that haunts him for the next 60 years.
New Zealand author Heather Morris transcribed Solokov’s shocking, at times brutal, and always poignant story with tenderness, sympathy and simplicity, drawing her readers into her protagonists’ world in a death camp, focusing on their unwavering faith that they will find a better life away from Auschwitz. (When the war ended, Solokov and Gita made their way to Australia, where they made their home.)
Morris also keeps a fine balance between describing the external circumstances of Solokov’s tale – the camp, the prisoners, the Nazis – and the internal, almost private story of Gita and Solokov’s love for one another, which is the heart of the novel. In short, in Morris’s hands, The Tattooist Of Auschwitz is not just a Holocaust novel nor is it a war-time love story; it is a tale of humanity and hope in a bleak landscape.
Poignant, moving and brutally honest, The Tattooist Of Auschwitz is an excellent glimpse into a part of history that generations are still suffering from. Well worth a read.
The Tattooist Of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
Publisher: Zaffre, nonfiction