The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

‘Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism .’

The Nazi regime forced prisoners to work with them in the running of their concentration camps. While other prisoners saw these people as collaborators, the prisoners forced to do this work had no choice. To refuse meant death. Different groups had different duties: the Sonderkommando worked in the gas chambers, transferring bodies to the crematoria, and then disposing of the ashes. Others worked in in the Politische Abteilung (the political department), responsible for camp administration. This department included Jewish women with typing skills who worked as secretaries, keeping records of prisoners and deaths as well as the men responsible for tattooing prisoners with their five digit identification numbers.

Lale Solokov was one of these men.

‘My name is Ludwig Eisenberg, but people call me Lale .’

Lale Eisenberg (as he was known then) was 24 years old in 1942. A Slovakian Jew, Lale surrendered himself believing that this would keep his parents and siblings safe. After being transported to Auschwitz by cattle car, Lale almost died of typhus shortly after his arrival. He was selected to assist the Tatowierer (and then became the Tatowierer), and this saved his life.

Lale met his future wife, Gita Fuhrmannova, on the platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her tattoo had faded, and Lale was required to redo it. He fell in love.

In ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, Heather Morris has written a novel based on her interviews with Lale. Lale and Gita settled in Australia after the war. After Gita’s death in 2003, Lale met Heather Morris and in a series of interviews shared his story.

It’s a harrowing story, and I can’t imagine anyone who read it not being moved by it. Lale and Gita survived when so many others did not. Lale was able to use the comparative safety of working for the Politische Abteilung to barter with two labourers who were building the crematoria: valuables (from the warehouse of confiscated possessions) for food and drugs. By doing this, he was able to ensure the survival of others (including Gita).

‘He too has chosen to stay alive for as long as he can, by performing an act of defilement on people of his own faith .’

It is heartbreaking to read this book, to be conscious of the choices required of Lale and others in order to survive. I cannot distinguish the balance between fact and fiction in this novel, but then I don’t need to in order to recognise the horror of these events. Love blooms in unexpected places and Lale’s strength of character shines through. Ms Morris originally intended Lale’s story as a screenplay. For me, personally, it is easier to read than to watch. While reading I can maintain a little emotional distance from events, I can be an observer rather than a participant.

This is a story worth reading: Lale Solokov was an extraordinary man.

‘There was no parting of memory and history for this beautiful old man — they waltzed perfectly in step.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith