Some books you pick up on a hunch, even though your better sense tells you not to. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris was one such book. A few names automatically conjure up images of events closely associated with them and yes, even this book is based in one (or two) of the most feared concentration camps that were so common in Hitler infested Europe during WWII. Lovers of history and the events that shaped our world usually have a fascination for this era albeit tinged with a horror attached to it. I have known friends and acquaintances who have visited these sites (most of which have now been converted to museums or memorials) and have come back shocked and depressed and have even gone to the extent of warning others to not repeat the mistake.
Coming back to the book, the protagonist is Lale, yet another well-bred and educated Jew who was rounded up from his hometown in Slovakia in the aftermath of Hitler’s hurricane sweep across Europe and taken to Birkenau / Auschwitz to a so-called “work camp”. He carries with him his genteel persona and suave manners but realizes early on that survival in these camps would also need him to be on his toes all the time and even then need an extra dollop of luck. His resourcefulness and his ability to connect with people, both his captors, his fellow prisoners and then some more stands him in good stead not only in his early years at the camp but all through his life there.
A chance encounter with near death due to illness gets him close to the elderly man designated as the Tattooist who takes him under his wing and Lale quickly learns from him the tricks of the trade and in a short period of time, unwillingly replaces him. The “trade” needs him to sit at his post just inside the camp’s main entrance and tattoo a unique identification number on the arms of all those lucky prisoners who are selected for working in the camp. Let us leave the fate of the ones rejected unsaid. Lale stays in this unique position for most of his duration in the camp and even manages to recruit an assistant for himself from amongst the prisoners given that the number of arrivals in the camp is only increasing in leaps and bounds.
This is the main premise of the book but with a lot many other layers to the story that we shall attempt to bring out.
- Lale’s initially conceived but continual misgivings about his becoming the Tattooist and thereby earning himself a virtually “respected” position in the higher echelons of the camp administrations – did that mean he was in cahoots with the enemy here? Was his forsaking his fellow prisoners and his country and helping the Germans in their reign of terror an act of treason or one of survival?
- True love can bloom anywhere – in a free country two people can get to know each other and eventually fall in love; at the same time, they can run into each other and fall in love in a place where the odds of your survival can change in a matter of minutes let alone having dreams of a future together in a free world.
- Lale’s attitude towards life and his highly positive nature, most of which was cultivated in him from childhood itself and his continual interactions with a loving mother made all the difference in his outlook towards life in and ensured that he was always confident that he would survive to see life on the other side of the camps.
- Lale realized that even his captors were after all human, twisted maybe, but still human. This book explores his relationship with some of them and how he was able to manipulate them to achieve his own ends.
- As was once again evident in this book, most people’s finest moments as a human being shine through in the darkest and most difficult of times. Ultimately humanity shows its true colors and even the worst of tyrants cannot stamp out the essential good nature of human beings.
There are a lot other finer points to this story but that I will leave for you to find out for yourself. Let me suffice it to say that this book gave me a lot to ponder and think over. While those times are hopefully, a thing of the past, many of the situations in this book can happen even in the trials and tribulations we go through in our lives. Even if we read multiple books based on life and death in the Nazi concentration camps (and there are enough and more of such books), we would never be able to actually imagine what the inmates actually went through, those who lived and survived there as well as those whose lives were so cruelly snuffed out. Having said that, even one such tale of survival shines like a beacon in a dark and stormy night and this book did that for me.
Oh and I think I forgot to mention, this book is not a work of fiction – Lale Solokov, born Ludwig “Lale” Eisenberg in 1916, erstwhile of Slovakia, detained in Birkenau / Auschwitz for being a Jew was a real person who survived the horrors of the camps and landed up in Melbourne, Australia where he lived happily with his family till 2006 when he passed away at the ripe old age of 90. The author, Heather Morris interviewed him for this book over the last 3 years of his life and it was published posthumously.
Highly recommended not only for a true account of life in the dreaded concentration camps but also for the various human angles so beautifully brought out in the book. For once, one with this subject that will still leave you with a feeling of positivity.
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