Heather Mor­ris The Tat­tooist of Auschwitz

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

The story of Lale Sokolov’s three years in Auschwitz-Birke­nau was re­counted by him to Heather Mor­ris, in Mel­bourne, as he neared the age of 90. Gita, his wife of al­most 60 years, had re­cently died and Lale was ea­ger, be­fore he joined her, to tell his story, so that “It would never hap­pen again.” Mor­ris was in­tro­duced as a po­ten­tial bi­og­ra­pher.

Then a novice screen­writer, she ini­tially wrote a screen­play based on Lale’s Auschwitz ex­pe­ri­ence, shap­ing it as a story of love con­quer­ing evil. A cul­tured and charis­matic Slo­vakian Jew flu­ent in six lan­guages, Lale had the trusted job, in Auschwitz, of tat­too­ing the fore­arms of new ar­rivals – those selected to work, not die – with a num­ber in green ink. That was how he and Gita met. He would be­come her pro­tec­tor and her lover.

You can see how a movie pitched with Spiel­ber­gian up­lift might en­sure Lale’s story its broad­est reach. But Mor­ris’s screen­play, de­spite some promis­ing signs, failed to get op­tioned and so she rewrote it as a novel. All this we learn from an Au­thor’s Note at the end of The Tat­tooist of Auschwitz, and the story’s prove­nance and progress to the page ex­plains a lot.

Whether from Lale’s own telling or through Mor­ris’s fic­tion­al­i­sa­tion, The Tat­tooist of Auschwitz elides the most hor­rific as­pects of the death camp. Those con­signed, upon ar­rival, straight to the gas cham­bers fea­ture in the book only as ash drift­ing from the cre­ma­to­ria. Their ab­sence is it­self chill­ing, but the fo­cus of the novel is res­o­lutely on the liv­ing, those whom Lale tat­tooed.

It’s as a story of sur­vival that The Tat­tooist of Auschwitz best suc­ceeds. Mor­ris notes that, while Gita was alive, Lale was re­luc­tant to speak of his time in Auschwitz, for fear of be­ing branded a col­lab­o­ra­tor. In the book, he and oth­ers do what­ever is nec­es­sary to save them­selves and those around them. Not dwelling on the source of the drift­ing ash is just one of those nec­es­sary things.

Lale Sokolov’s story is an af­fect­ing and im­por­tant one, so it’s a shame that Mor­ris is not a bet­ter nov­el­ist. Stilt­ed­ness and cliché un­der­mine the story’s power and a lack of dra­matic in­sight ren­ders Lale’s char­ac­ter thinly heroic. The book’s for­mer life as a screen­play is ev­i­dent to the fi­nal page when, free at last, Gita agrees to make Lale “the hap­pi­est man in the world”. FADE OUT.


Echo, 288pp, $29.99

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