The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris follows the story of Lale, a young Jewish man sent to the Birkenau concentration camp in Poland during the Second World War. The novel not only provides insight into the minds of Lale and his fellow inmates, but the vile and vicious mistreatment of the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who were forced into the camps. Morris heard of Lale and his story through a friend. She spent three years forming a strong friendship with him and listening to his story, to give it the dignity and authenticity it deserved. The novel explores a person’s identity through the act of being tattooed, an unfathomable love story, the loss of humanity and the lengths Lale took to survive. One of the themes Morris focuses on in The Tattooist of Auschwitz is an exploration of identity. The concept of a tattoo being marked on a person’s body as a form of self-identity.
For the average person, getting a tattoo is a choice. They want ink to be marked on their body to express themselves or for aesthetic value. The millions of prisoners who were forced into concentration camps were not given a choice in having a tattoo and what the tattoo was: ‘He slips and stabs the young woman he is tattooing. She cries out. Lale wipes the blood that trickles down her arm’. Morris uses colourful language to emphasise the cruelty of the prisoners being forcibly tattooed. The process is invasive and terrifying; they did not choose to have their bodies marked with ink. The tattoos were a random jumble of digits that became the prisoner’s new identity. They were stripped of a voice before they stepped foot into the camps, treated and viewed as less than human for their true identities.
A tattoo in life outside concentration camps can represent a large portion of a person’s identity, yet the significance of a tattoo in Birkenau and Auschwitz represented power over another life. Despite this, Lale finds a reason to survive when he meets Gita. The theme of love is a key focus of the book. Recounting a love story and following its ups and downs in the harshest conditions drives the plot. Morris cleverly juxtaposes the incomprehensible cruelty of the camp and the romantic tale of two young people in love: ‘Lale doesn’t need Gita to remind him of the number of people who have passed through the camps. He has marked their skin himself’ … ‘Lale leans over to kiss her, his heart weighted by love and sorrow’. The love Lale and Gita experience allowed them to survive each day in the camps. There is a powerful message within this story that is wonderful to experience as a reader: discrimination and mistreatment for the purpose of stripping one’s humanity may be harmful beyond repair, but love can conquer all.
However, it does not take away the pain and suffering from the demeaning treatment the prisoners received. Although, as the tattooist, Lale has more privileges than others, these privileges come with greater risk. The treatment in Birkenau and Auschwitz is horrific, making the prisoners feel like they are nothing. Morris provides small yet significant details for the reader to create a suspenseful narrative: ‘His eyes seem to see nothing; this is a man whose soul has died and whose body is waiting to catch up with it’.
Lale is treated like an insignificant creature that deserves nothing but pain and torture. Although the descriptions are graphic, Morris holds back, stoping just in time, not wanting to allow the reader’s focus to deviate. Powerful lines are used throughout the book to hone in on a true recount. Morris further illustrates this in the author acknowledgements: ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of two ordinary people, living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but their dignity, their names, and their identities, and it is Lale’s account of what they needed to do to survive’.
So much of the prisoners’ lives were destroyed and it is through Lale’s story that the reader is allowed a privileged glimpse into the conditions they were faced with and the steps one man took to overcome them. The perks of tattooing at the concentration camps allowed Lale comforts millions of other prisoners were denied; however, his role as the tattooist played on his conscience: ‘I have been given the choice of participating in the destruction of our people, and I have chosen to do so in order to survive. I can only hope I am not one day judged as a perpetrator or a collaborator’.
As a reader, one experiences a strong sense of disbelief that a person can survive such conditions. The story demonstrates that although the prisoners needed to work as one to survive, they also had to focus on themselves and take any opportunity that came their way to allow them a chance at freedom.
The novel’s exploration of tattoos and their purpose during the Second World War in Birkenau and Auschwitz expands the reader’s preconceptions of self-identity. The prisoners of the concentration camps did not have a choice; each person was forced to have a tattoo and was stripped of everything that made them unique. Morris’ work is one to applaud for telling a truly significant and remarkable story.