When fact is masqueraded as too much fiction‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ tells a story of love, in the most dire circumstance, but betrays history in doing so.
It is 1942, and der Führer has just begun sending out shocks of terror across the world. Like thousands of others, young and happy Lale is cruelly wrenched apart from his comfortable life with a loving family in Slovakia. He is stuffed into a death train that will take him to a place soon to be reviled as one of the most notorious in history–Auschwitz.
It is in Auschwitz, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps, that Heather Morris sets ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ a novel-like narration based on a true story. The horrors begin from a tolerable stink in a stuffy carriage and escalate menacingly, within 30 pages, to people being swatted dead easier than flies.
Terrified, we peer along with Lale as naked men are herded into a bus, and a German soldier upends a canister unto it. “The bus shakes violently and muffled screams are heard. When the bus is still and quiet, the doors are opened. Dead men fall out like blocks of stone.” Holocaust literature is inevitably loaded with pain and suffering, and each new work is a shocking reminder of the depth of depravities that humans can do.
In this hellish world Lale continues to etch numbers onto the wrists of incoming ‘prisoners’ – for no other purpose save to fulfil cowardly needs to identify, mark, characterise the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’, the ‘useless’ also seen in the killing fields of Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide, and numerous other massacres. Until one day, he tattoos on the number of a girl called Gita. The duo fall in love, and begin imagining a life beyond the barbed wire… but is it possible?
In his lovelorn state, Lale spies a sole flower growing in this hellhole. He plucks it and carefully places it beside his bed, intending to gift it to his beloved Gita. The next morning, the petals have separated and lie curled up beside the black centre. “Death alone persists in this place,” muses Lale, unable to bear looking at the wilted flower, so similar to the lives of hundreds rotting inside the camps.
The desperation of the couple to savour the little time they have left, their simple yet impossible-seeming dream to “be free to make love whenever, wherever we want”, their snatches of conversations, a dangerous, tender love brewing during a deadly war—this is what tugs at the heartstrings of readers. It is the most desperate and bleak love story one can imagine, with death lurking behind every corner and approaching with each footstep.
Even in such a trying time Lale remains an optimist, not unlike everyone’s favourite character from “Life is Beautiful,” – “We stand in shit but let us not drown in it,” he says. Indeed, immediately after arriving at the camp, there is a confidence, even a bit of smugness in his character that is endearing. “My life is too good to end in this stinkhole,” he muses.
As food and hope wear thin and death beckons ever closer, Lale refuses to give up the last shred of hope. He takes part in a bizarre football match between the soldiers and malnourished prisoners, a farce of a game which they are forced to play, but must be careful not to win. The trophy at stake is the 1930 World Cup, that inexplicably reached the camp just like other astounding and priceless goods, and even more precious human lives.
The work will make readers constantly mull over human life–its sanctity, fragility and value. Racial diversity, ideological differences, religious beliefs–nothing is worth a human life. When every country is clamouring to display its power and strength within itself and to the outside world, the novel is an eerie and sobering reminder of how war gradually creeps up behind you, and how quickly it destroys everything. “Nations threaten other nations. They have the power, they have the military. How can a race spread out across multiple countries be considered a threat?”
It is a sensitive subject, and there are signs that show Morris has done her best to tread delicately and portray movingly. Yet the novel falls short of its noble intentions, with insufficient research and fact-checking. For such an emotional telling, the writing is quite mediocre, bordering on the mundane at times. There is out-of-place romanticising, incongruous philosophising, and unadorned sentences that do not do justice to the emotional saga. Morris has made abundant use of dramatic license, romanticising and sensationalising. It is quite surprising to note inadequate verification of major facts.
For example, Lale’s real name is ‘Lali’, and there is no valid reason to call him by another name. The very tattoo number etched on Gita’s wrist (in the book) is wrong, as has been mentioned many times–while Morris adamantly claims that it is the correct one. The Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre has said the novel contains “numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements.”
Experts have refuted the suggestion that those with even a little power at the camps also had opportunity to misuse the power, while a relationship between a prisoner-soldier has been dismissed as untrue. While Morris confidently mentions a bribery for penicillin, historical researchers have mentioned that it would be impossible to get this medicine at that particular place and time. When significant details about the characters and their lives are wrong, how authentic is a story about them? And if it isn’t meant to be a historical truth, why is it advertised as a ‘true’ story?
“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” was a hugely successful work, rising up in bestseller charts around the world, with Morris going on to write “Cilka’s Journey”, which has been dissed for its coarse handling of the subject matter. The distorted truth is an injustice to the lives of those in the torturous camps. This novel will serve as a reminder that the lives of real people and their emotions are not to be tampered with, not even in the guise of ‘poetic license’–for it will take away the authenticity and trust from the most beloved of books.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz