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HA Reviews: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Like regular movie, TV show, and book reviews, HA Reviews has students review pieces that interest them. This week in honor of Yom HaShoa, senior Esther Nahon reviews Heather Morris' The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a different type of Holocaust book.

We’ve seen it.

We’ve heard it.

We’ve learned it.

We’ve remembered it.

But we haven’t lived it and we never will.

That is why you’re reading a book review about yes, “another Holocaust book.” Honestly, I used to have the same approach- I used to think that a Holocaust book was just a Holocaust book. I’ve heard it all before. Whether it was a real life account or historical fiction, the plots would always be the same. Horror, torture, pain, and an endless list of other terms that fail to describe such brutal suffering, are an ubiquitous constant among them all. I mean, there are only so many ways to tell a unique Holocaust story, right?

Actually, yes. There are.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, authored by Heather Morris, tells the fictionalized story of Lale Sokolov- a Slovakian Jew who was both a prisoner and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Lale was appointed to tattoo the numbers onto the new arrivals of prisoners transported to Auschwitz everyday and this job aided him in his survival. The job kept him “one step farther away from death” and granted him access to unique experiences, benefits, and opportunities, most prominently pursuing his love interest, Gita. It was his unwavering love and devotion to her which allowed him to remain hopeful and determined to leave Auschwitz.

Unlike most stories though, the novel focuses on some of the most beautiful, yet hidden acts of humanity amidst those of such tremendous evil. Previously, I’ve learned of how the cruel and inhumane treatment of Jews in the Holocaust led many to lose their faith and morale as they succumbed to their savage, animalistic instincts of survival. However, this novel brings to light the many risks, self-sacrifices, and small acts of kindness that were performed by both Jews and non-Jews alike for others. This was done to prove that not all humanity was lost. There was still truly unbelievable ways for people to do good, to help their fellow man, and to fall in love in this world of unfathomable cruelty and evil. It is that aspect I believe is not stressed enough in Holocaust books- that there are those who risked and endangered their lives to be altruistic when they had every right, and every reason not to.

Perhaps my shift in perspective, and heightened concern for the gravity of the subject of the Holocaust may not necessarily be because of this very specific book itself. I presume that time, age, and the factors that come along with it, played a significant impact on the way I view the world. Our opinions and values are constantly changing every single day, affecting and molding the way in which we previously used to view, and feel about specific matters. Personally, I do not have any family or relatives who have experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, and so I never felt attached or bonded to the event. Yet after reading this book I felt such an extreme sensitivity and connection to the topic more than I ever have before.

When given the choice between reading a book of fiction or a Holocaust book, I used to shy away from the latter and tell myself that I have a pretty good idea of what the book will be about. I mean, there’s no changing history, but there is a way to change our mindset. Sometimes it just takes one book, one story, or one experience to truly hit you, touch you, and resonate with you in order to inspire you. Granted, this novel brought me to tears and had me sobbing into the wee hours of the night. But surprisingly, it also made me smile. It lit a small spark to a flame, leaving me with the urge to ignite a fire. Upon finishing the novel, I’ve been compelled to learn more and to research and read as many more accounts as I can. After reading the Author's Note (which I highly recommend you all do!), I searched for interviews on YouTube between Lale and Heather, for more facts and information online about the Tätowierer, for accounts of the atrocities Joseph Mengele actually performed, and for more stories to read. I now WANT to pick up a Holocaust book, I WANT to learn more about their experiences, and I WANT to learn their names. I want to know them.

Above all, I am grateful that I now know to never make the mistake I once did: to never generalize the tragedies. I now know that every victim has a different story and that every survivor lives a different tale to tell-each equally deserving of recognition. With the six million that perished did not go their stories and their identities. There is something we can and must do: learn and educate. We cannot simply believe that we “get it” or that we know it all.

We don’t and never will.

We must also be sure to always remember and never forget.

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