Lale was a bit of a lad in Slovakia, fond of women and fine clothes: “Always dress to impress”, but when he ends up in Auschwitz/Birkenau in 1942 he must use all his charm and cunning to survive – and he does, he does well, and then he falls in love …
The tattooist of Auschwitz started out as a screenplay before being ‘kickstarted’ into a debut novel. It is very simply written and it is not the writing that keeps you engaged – it is the incredible true story of Lale and Gita, the young woman he falls in love with, and the other inmates of the camp – Jews, Romani, Poles – all those people whose “futures have been derailed and there will be no getting back on the same track.”
Morris creates a world within the camps that has all the usual rivalries and kindnesses to be found when groups of people live together; the dislike of new comers, the suspicion of those who appear better off than you, but also the incredible generosity that people are capable of, both from those held in the camps and from those civilians who visit to do their work. There are also fleeting kindnesses from the guards, but very fleeting, their behaviour unfortunately typical when people are given free reign to hate and vilify another section of humanity.
Lale is given the job of tattooing the numbers onto new arrival’s forearms, first as an assistant and then as the official Tätowierer for the camps. And that raises all sorts of moral questions for Lale – is he a collaborator? Is he complicit in taking away people’s identities? If he doesn’t do it someone else will – someone maybe not so gentle, someone who won’t use his position to help others? And being the Tätowierer’s assistant is how he first saw Gita, where he first got his absolute determination to make sure they both survive.
Questions about what the right thing is to do when you are in the most surreal of circumstances pepper the novel: another young woman, Cilka, becomes the sexual plaything of the Senior Commandant of Birkenau, we learn later she was charged with being a Nazi conspirator and sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour in Siberia. Jakub is required to torture his fellow Jews, we don’t hear of his fate. The ‘why didn’t the Jews rise up and overthrow their captors’ question is briefly dealt with: “we have fists, they have rifles – who do you think is going to win that fight?”
Lale comes to live by the motto “To save one is to save the world”, and in the three years he is held he does what he can for those around him, and especially for Gita. It is a remarkable story, at the end of the book there are sections on Morris’ research and on Lale and Gita, including photographs. The tattooist of Auschwitz is a timely read given the Trump administration’s rumblings about ‘Muslims’, the current apparently wholesale incarceration of Uighur Muslims in China, and the treatment of Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the ongoing insanity of punishing people for who they are not what they have done.