Another recommendation from my sister who loves sad books, which is why I was surprised with how hopeful the book actually was. The author takes a terribly dark piece of history and imbues it with humanity and hope.
In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.
Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.
One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.
A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.
I’ve read many books set in concentration camps or, more broadly, during World War II and each one hurts just as much as the last. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the second book that I’ve read that’s based off interviews with a survivor of Auschwitz and it is interesting to have these two different perspectives of the same setting. One, The Librarian of Auschwitz, that tells the story of a young girl who oversaw a secret library while performing manual labor in Auschwitz. The Tattooist of Auschwitz tells the story of a young man who had a higher ranking among the prisoners but secretly traded with outside workers to provide extra rations for his fellow prisoners.
Both of these stories are impactful, educational, and heartbreaking. The Tattooist of Auschwitz seems to be deeply rooted in fact, mentioning specific people and explaining what happened to many of them at the end of the novel. Every couple of chapters we jump forward a few months, eventually totaling to three years of time in Auschwitz. This book is marketed as historical fiction because the scenarios are based off memory and some fictional “filler” portions, but it reads a lot like a third-person non-fiction book. Everything is told in such a precise manner, making the setting and situations even more impactful.
There are a lot of painful pieces of Lale’s story, but woven throughout this darkness is hope, humanity, love, and camaraderie. Lale and Gita’s story is beautiful, and the way Lale was so determined to live through Auschwitz was both amazing and inspiring. The relationships between many of the prisoners was also inspiring as they tried to help each other survive, often donating rations and risking their own lives for someone else.
This is a very heavy book but it is so worth the read. We can never be too educated about what happened to so many people during WWII, and reading novels like the Tattooist of Auschwitz can make it a much more digestible lesson because of how personally the story is told. I would highly recommend this book.
The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein