The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a fictionalized telling of the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovenian Jew who survived three years in Nazi prison camps. It’s written as if it’s the only book about the Holocaust, or at least as if it’s the first one the reader has encountered. Perhaps it would be effective on a high school curriculum since it carefully traces a familiar story, but for anyone with pre-existing knowledge the suspense feels false. What will Lale find when he gets off the crowded train? What are those smoke stacks for? The mystery has been sucked out of this book’s major turns. In 2018, if you’re writing about the Holocaust you’d better be exploring a fresh question; to rehash the painful big moments feels ghoulish.
In theory, the fresh question of The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a moral one: to what extent is it acceptable for a prisoner to cooperate with the enemy, and at what point does their quest for survival become conspiring with the enemy? Lale tattooed identification numbers on thousands if not millions of prisoners, inflicting pain and humiliation. Another prisoner’s job is to assault and interrogate fellow prisoners; another had to sleep with a high ranking official or risk being killed. But author Heather Morris fails to really inhabit these complicated feelings, beyond saying “if I didn’t do it someone else would.” There ought to be more.
What Morris does do well is arrange the anecdotes and foggy memories of a real man on his deathbed into a cohesive and readable narrative. This is no small feat. While at times the novel feels like a collection of vignettes, overall the tale has momentum, with characters, props, and themes recurring and building towards a logical climax. And though I fault Morris for shying away from the big messy questions at the heart of the Holocaust, she doesn’t avoid them completely. Readers are confronted with fragile friendships between prisoner and guard, and horrible choices between the uncertain safety of following the rules and the sickening risk of breaking them to parlay long-term security. And while Morris spends little time ruminating on these complexities, she at least pencils them into the narrative where readers can ruminate themselves.