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 over 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.
This is the first instance in which I’m glad I waited a while before writing my review. After I finished The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I thought it was pretty great. Looking back on it, I rated it while thinking about it as a nonfiction book. However, it isn’t. And if I look at it as a historical fiction novel, it’s just okay to me.
This is a novel based on the story of Lale Sokolov, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau for 3 years. He was put to work as the Tätowierer, which means he tattooed the numbers on the wrists of other prisoners. It was “better” work than most others had to do, and allowed Lale some privileges, which he used to help others. He traded jewels and valuables the women found in new arrivals’ clothing for food, medicine, and treats, and handed them out to others.
We follow Lale from the moment he is taken to Auschwitz, through his years at the camp and beyond. We see him fall in love with Gita, who was also imprisoned in the concentration camp, and dream of a life together after the war.
It’s a really touching story, especially because the majority of this book is taken directly from Lale’s memories. The author interviewed him often, and built up a personal relationship with him. She tried her best to tell his story in a way that is both hopeful yet realistic. It gets hard to read about the gruesome and horrible things that happened in the camps, which is to be expected. But there’s always that strand of hope, for people like Lale and Gita, who have fallen in love and hope to live and see a better time.
The reason I can’t give this more than 3 stars, however, is because of the writing. The author explained that she originally meant for this book to be a screenplay. It shows. It’s like they couldn’t decide between a nonfiction book, a screenplay, or a novel and left it somewhere in between. The entire time, I had to remind myself that I was reading a historical fiction book. I began to take everything as facts, because that’s how it was written to be. It felt like reading a memoir. Yet distant in a way, because of the screenplay factor.
If you would look at this book as a nonfiction one, it would be pretty good. Obviously, then the author would have to take out some exaggerations she made and events she changed. If you’d look at it as a screenplay, it could also be pretty good. You’d have to make slight adjustments, sure, but the material is there. As a historical fiction novel, however, it doesn’t really work. There’s too little distance between the reality and fiction, and it makes for a confusing reading experience.
When you’re reading a biography, you don’t really rely on character building or a plot. After all, that’s not what a biography or memoir is about. You’re simply observing someone’s story. A historical fiction novel, on the other hand, does require those aspects. It’s still a work of fiction, and needs to engage its reader. Because those were lacking in The Tattooist, it made it seem like you were reading a biography instead.
The writing style is stuck somewhere between nonfiction book and screenplay, while the changes the author made to the facts make it a historical fiction novel. I think this should have gone through another round of edits, because now it felt like the author didn’t really have a voice. It seemed more like she was telling Lale’s story, like in a biography, but altered some things to serve a more dramatic purpose.
In itself, Lale’s story is very moving. I never even thought about who tattooed the prisoners until I read about the Tätowierer, and it was illuminating to read about his “job” in the camp. However, the writing made this into a confusing read. It’s like the author couldn’t decide which direction to take this story in, so she left it somewhere in the middle instead.
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it?