The Tattooist of Auschwitz – is it ignoble to criticise a noble book?

First of all, let me emphasise that this truly is a noble book. Really, I mean it. I’m not being facetious. Even though I’m about to embark upon a few critical thoughts, I still fervently maintain that this is a noble book. And for that reason alone, I say Hats off to the author, Heather Morris. If I were either Lale or Gita – her true-life protagonists – I would be smiling down from heaven now, in the wake of their novel’s success and their subsequent promotion to eternal fame and immortality.

Did you notice that I just said their novel’s success? That wasn’t accidental. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is their novel. Their love and survival story. They met at Auschwitz-Birkenau when very young, fell in love, managed to survive against all odds, married after the liberation, and lived a long and happy life together. All the details of their daily ordeals during their incarceration, as well as the ordeals of other inmates, make for fascinating reading. Everyone has heard about Auschwitz (I, for one, living in Krakow, have visited it several times), but this book gives us a kind of insider knowledge, thanks to the author’s meticulous research and interviews with the elderly Lale, with whom she carried out extensive interviews before his death in 2006. Both Lale and Gita are dead now, but their memory will certainly live on. This book is a homage to them, and to others who experienced the living hell of concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau; places that none of us, 74 years on, can truly imagine. It is only via the conduit of literature that we can try to comprehend at least a fraction of its reality.

So on that count alone, this book was worth writing. The trouble is, when dealing with subject matter as grave as wartime survival, especially when the main characters really existed, it almost feels crass to cast aspersions on the writing itself. I feel guilty offering any niggling criticisms, so I won’t even bother going into detail about why, for me, the style didn’t quite work. I suppose all I can say is that the novel was more like a chronicle. In that sense it worked, because we learned a lot of significant facts and, knowing that it was closely based on those facts, we were offered a virtual experience of being in a concentration camp, albeit from our safely removed haven in place and time. And, perhaps above all, we were amazed to learn that inmates still found the energy to experience human emotions such as romantic love, given the fact that dehumanisation is what the Nazi camps were all about. Hence the tattoos.

If Lale’s testimony, narrated by Heather Morris, is to be believed (which I don’t doubt), then such experiences apparently were possible. That’s what astounded me. But if this book had been pure historical fiction, then I have to say I would have found the characters somewhat wooden, the style simplistic, and a certain intangible element missing, considering the emotional power such a story should have conveyed. I never once, for instance, felt moved to tears while reading the novel.

I did, however, feel touched when reading the author’s postscripts, which constituted quite a number of additional pages. The account of her journey to Lale’s hometown of Krompachy in Slovakia, and the reception she received there, was certainly heart-warming. It gave me a real sense of the appealing character and determination of this remarkable woman; a writer who has taken Lale and Gita’s story to heart and gone to great lengths to make it come alive again, thereby enabling all of us to share their world and admire the acts of heroism that most of us will never experience in our own lives. In that sense, Heather Morris is also one of the heroes. And that is not said flippantly.

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