Monday 22 January 2018


Title: The Tattooist Of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
Genre: General Fiction, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre
Release Date: 11th January 2018

BLURB from Goodreads
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz and eventually made their home in Australia. In that terrible place, Lale was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival - literally scratching numbers into his fellow victims' arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Lale used the infinitesimal freedom of movement that this position awarded him to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep others alive. If he had been caught, he would have been killed; many owed him their survival.

There have been many books about the Holocaust - and there will be many more. What makes this one so memorable is Lale Sokolov's incredible zest for life. He understood exactly what was in store for him and his fellow prisoners, and he was determined to survive - not just to survive but to leave the camp with his dignity and integrity intact, to live his life to the full. Terrible though this story is, it is also a story of hope and of courage. It is also - almost unbelievably - a love story. Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale - a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer - it was love at first sight, and he determined not only to survive himself but to ensure that Gita did, too. His story - their story - will make you weep, but you will also find it uplifting. It shows the very best of humanity in the very worst of circumstances.


I'd had this book on my list to read for a while and after reading another book set around the same time I decided I was ready to give this one a go. I was apprehensive as the book is based on a true story meaning the characters in this book aren't made up, they are real live people going through being in Auschwitz.

I have seen that there are two covers for this book and I have decided to describe that I should describe the colour one which is the one for the edition I read and I have pictured that one above in this review. The covers main "colour" is an ash grey colour that becomes more meaningful as you read the book. There are faded blue stripes too, that represent the uniforms some prisoners were made to wear. At the top portion of the cover there are two clasping hands, the way arms are positioned numbers are visible on one which is also becomes even more relevant as you read the book. At the upper right of the cover is a circular "stamped" circular type design that says "Based on an incredible true story".  At the very bottom section of the cover is the dark grey outline of Auschwitz in the dusky ashy atmosphere. I feel that this cover is a very strong one featuring lots of important elements from within the book. The only thing I would change on this cover is the position of the arms, as on the different cover I have seen the arms are in a slightly different position meaning the tattooed numbers are visible on both the female and male arms.

The genres I have seen listed for this book are "General Fiction", "Historical Fiction" which fit the book very well along with "Holocaust". I find it a shame that more is not being made of this book being based on a real story, maybe we should have a "based on a real story" genre. 

Before I actually begin talking about the content of the book, I should explain how at the very beginning of the book there is a section about how Heather came to meet Lale. Heather was introduced to Lale as he "might have a story worth telling". Heather goes on to say the day she met Lale Sokolov was a day that changed both their lives. Their friendship grew as Lale trusted Heather with the innermost details of what he saw, did and witnessed others doing during the Holocaust. 

The book begins with Lale sitting at his desk that is set up nearby the arriving transport trains at Auschwitz. Lale has a piece of paper in his hand with a number on it 34902. The woman in front of him already has a faded number on her arm. Lale starts working on her arm. He tries so hard to be gentle that he doesn’t go deep enough with the needle and has to go over the number again with more force. The young woman doesn't flinch or cry out at the pain, Lale is fully aware he is inflicting. Those being tattooed have been told to say nothing and do nothing. As he wipes away some of the blood the man next to him whispers a warning to Lale urgently "hurry up". A man in a white coat approaches, looking the women over as he walks. He roughly grabs the young woman's face who Lale is in the process of tattooing and jerks her head about. The young woman looks as if she is going to say something. Lale quickly mouths “shhh” at the young woman and when the man in the white coat moves on Lale tells the young woman she is doing well. Once again Pepan urges Lale to be quicker at his job.

Then the book goes back to how Lale ended up at Auschwitz in the first place. Lale is well educated and well dressed in one of his suits hoping to impress whomever he will be working for. He is holding his suitcase which contains some clothes and a few possessions. Lale is standing shoulder to shoulder with the other men packed into a train carriage that is usually used for transporting cattle. These men are being taken "to work" for the German cause under the direction and orders of Adolf Hitler. None of the men really know where they are going or what they will be doing. They travel for two days though there are many stops none of them are to allow the men on that train food, drink or toilet & washing facilities. A young man called Aron approaches Lale and asks why he is so calm. Aron wants to organise the men to fight back against the Germans. Lale explains to Aron that men's fists, no matter how many are not a match for guns. 

Finally, the train stops for the men to get off, they have arrived at Auschwitz. As Lale walks through the iron gates he glances at the words written in German above him "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" which translated reads "Work will make you free". Lale does have the advantage of speaking many different languages so at least he can understand the orders the Germans are shouting at him and his fellow travellers. Lale does his best to explain the orders to those around him to prevent them being shoved about and beaten until they understand what they are being told to do. Commandant Rudolf Hoess speaks to the men, telling them they are at Auschwitz now and they need to work hard, do as they are told and they may go free one day. But he also warns if they disobey there will be consequences!

During processing Lale has to provide his name, address, occupation and his parent's names. He is then given a slip of paper with a number on it, 32407. An SS Officer pulls off Lale's jacket, rips his sleeve and slams his arm on a table for the number to be tattooed. The actual tattooing takes only seconds. After processing the men are made to strip, shower, have their head shaved and to put on old Russian Army uniforms. 

Lale and Aron meet back up having being given the same block number, 7.  That night Lale needs to pee and as he approaches the designated area something holds him back when he hears soldiers approaching. The young soldiers just randomly shoot the three men that are in the process of using the "toilet facilities". Lale makes a vow to himself that he is going to survive this awful place. It is this determination and survival instinct along with his friendship with Aron that saves Lale's life when he is ill. Lale then meets Pepan the current tattooist and is taken under his wing and made his assistant.

So much happens in this book both to Lale and fellow prisoners he is friends with and to others around him. This book takes you through a whole range of emotions, anger and fury for the innocent people being sent to concentration camps, sorrow for the loss of the prisoners loved one. The fact that these people didn't know if they would ever see their families ever again. Disgust at how the Germans treat the prisoners. Then also pride in those people in the concentration camps that fought on and that survived everything and anything that the Germans could think of throwing their way. 

I guess it's not a case of favourite "characters" as these are real people so the following part of my review is me mentioning these people and how I felt about them whilst reading the book. Of course, there is so much I could say about Lale, I admire his selflessness, the way he makes the decision to be the "one child to work for the Germans" so that his older brother who is married with children can stay at home with his family and that his parents will be left in peace to continue to live in their own home. I also admired his first small act of defiance setting fire to his clothes. Lale goes on to secretly defy the Germans when necessary. As the tattooist he has his own room, he has the privilege of eating slightly better food elsewhere from the bustle of the main food line, he also receives larger rations. Lale does not forget those friends he made back in Block 7 as he hides some of his bread and shares it with them. Lale makes friends easily, and later in the book he has a couple of the young women who work in Canada (which is where all the prisoner’s possessions go to be sorted through) smuggle him money, jewellery etc, to barter/pay to the outside building contractors he has made friends with. In exchange for the money, jewels etc, one of the builders and his son bring in whatever Lale and the prisoners need from chocolate, other food, and medicines. Lale uses the chocolate to bribe Kapos (those prisoners who work for the Germans by keeping eyes on all the prisoners in their block.) He treats Gita his girlfriend to chocolate. Lale to me, represents hope throughout the book. Gita is younger than Lale and has been held elsewhere. Lale is besotted with her from the moment he sees her and re-tattoo's her number. They snatch moments together on Sundays when no prisoners in the camp work except the tattooist if there are incoming prisoners. They quickly fall in love with each other. Lale shares his extra rations, and uses chocolate to bribe the kapo in Gita's block to get them some time alone. Gita tells Lale only her first name, she refuses to give him her surname or talk about what has happened to her.

I felt shock and horror on the behalf of Cilka. When she arrived at Auschwitz she was singled out by "The Commandant" and was allowed to keep her beautiful long hair. But there is a price to pay for everything in Auschwitz and Cilka's price is becoming the sexual plaything of "The Commandant". Cilka plays an important part in ensuring Lale lives at one point in the book, without her asking a favour in return for all what has been repeatedly taken from her. I was also angry whilst reading a certain part of the book where Cilka is labelled a collaborator and is actually punished! Surely her treatment at the hands of The Commandant was enough punishment for a lifetime.

The next person that kind of played a little on my mind after finishing the book was SS Baretski, it's strange as during the book you see many sides to him. The young fairly innocent boy, writing to his girlfriend and asking Lale's advice on gifts to send her. Then there's the cruel, sadistic side when he is punishing the prisoners. Or when he toys with Lale, sometimes being friendly and passing on a note to Gita. The banter he has with Lale the advice that Lale gives SS Baretski on how to treat his girlfriend and how Baretksi feeds back to Lale if his suggestions worked. It's almost as though in different circumstances they could have been friends. At times you think SS Baretski is also a victim of Adolf Hitler, as he doesn't really have a choice in being at Auschwitz either. Though of course he is living in a much better position, is well clothed and well fed too. 

My immediate thoughts upon finishing this book was that it was an amazing, eye opening real-life tale of survival against the odds. 

Heather Morris does a fantastic job with her writing style. As you read it is the voices of Lale and Gita that you hear telling you their story of how they got through the darkest days of their lives.
Gary Sokolov must be so proud of the brave yet kind Lale & Gita who strove to survive in the harshest of conditions yet still tried to help others around them.

The epilogue was incredible, I honestly loved the extra input about "After". After reading the horrors that happened to these people it was kind of soothing to the mind to know some people did survive despite the Germans best efforts to work them to death. It's difficult to say much about the epilogue without giving anything major away. To be honest I would have been left irritated and upset not knowing what happened to certain people. Though I would have liked to know how things turned out for Leon as he did have the horrendous Dr Mengele experiment on him. 

This book gave me the same stunned, sorrowful emotional feelings at how on earth one human can treat another in the way the Germans did during the Holocaust as I had a similar reaction to reading the book Surviving the Angel of Death written by Holocaust survivor Eva Kor. These are amazing books, to read about what happened to these brave individuals and how they dealt with it all. I think it is so generous and courageous of them to take the time to re-live what they went through to tell everyone the truth about what happened during that horrific era known as the Holocaust. The suffering these people went through should never be forgotten. This is in my opinion another book that should be read in schools to teach about the Holocaust and how it affected the people then and how it should teach us lessons for the future. The survivors and those that lost their lives deserve for their stories to live on. One last thing I need to say, have the tissues at hand and be prepared to read late into the night and have this book take over your mind and thoughts from the very beginning to the very end.


I think the cover on the left with the stripes of the prisoners uniforms would stand out more on a book store shelf. It represents more things that are within the book such as Auschwitz, uniform stripes the tattoos and the male & female holding hands despite where they are. 

The cover on the right with the male and female holding hands with their prison camp numbers showing tells you what a poignant and emotional read the book is.
Though both covers invoke emotion, both say that the book is based on a true story. To be totally honest, I personally, would choose either of these books up from a book shelf to learn more about them.

Which cover do you prefer?
And have you read the book? 
Did your choice change after reading the book?

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