As a former high school History teacher, I am only too familiar with the horrific details of the Holocaust — the concerted attempt by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population by any means necessary during the Second World War.
Thus, it was with some trepidation that I picked up the best-selling novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris.
The book is an account of the struggles of real-life Holocaust survivor, Lale Sokolov – the tattooist of the book’s title – to stay alive in the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps using his wit and cunning, while at the same time pursuing an improbable, but bitter-sweet, romantic relationship with a fellow Slovakian Jewish inmate named Gita Furman.
It is a story of human suffering and man’s inhumanity to man, but also one of hope, love and endurance.
Critics have not been kind to the book.
Many, like the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre, claim that “the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements.”
The Guardian’s critic Jane Housham referred to the book as a “glossing over of the concentration camps’ unremitting misery with sugary romance.”
Fair enough, but The Tattooist of Auschwitz is clearly labelled “A Novel” on its front cover. To approach it in the same manner as a non-fiction historical account is unfair and sure to be disappointing.
We’re all familiar with movies that include the preface: “Based on a true story.” Well, that’s what this book is — a story based on the first-person reminiscences of 87-year-old Holocaust survivor Lake Sokolov. Like all first-person accounts, it may have its intrinsic problems.
Having said that, does its historical inaccuracies detract from the novel’s effectiveness in telling a good story while at the same time introducing many readers to the horrors of the Holocaust for the first time?
I think not.
Indeed, historical fiction is a controversial genre as evidenced by a recent New York Times piece about ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ and the History in Historical Fiction. To read this article, click here.
In short, it is best to approach the book as an historical novel based on the experiences of a real-life Holocaust survivor. Viewed in this way, I can say with confidence that this novel should become a welcome addition to the Holocaust canon.
If it encourages readers to pick up a non-fiction account of the Holocaust, that’s even better.
I give The Tattooist of Auschwitz 4 Stars out 4 and highly recommend it.
Rick Young, January 23, 2019
Addendum: When I began teaching high school History in the late 1970s, I took it upon myself to interview several local Holocaust survivors for use with my students when we covered the topic. To be sure, it was one of the most humbling and moving experiences in my life.
Unfortunately, in my moves to four different schools during my 30-year career, the taped interviews got lost in the shuffle.