Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris and F2F Report

I knew I would read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris eventually, since it's a WWII novel. But, it was my F2F group's selection of the book that prompted me to buy a copy and then read it for discussion. As it turned out, I was totally not in the right mood to read about the Holocaust. But, it didn't matter. Once it came up to the top of the stack and it was time to read the book, I made myself open it and found that it's an engrossing story. No worries about not being in the right mood. It probably helped that I've missed out on F2F meetings for several months and was determined to show up.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the novelization of a true story about a young man who was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. A Jew, his family was told that they must pick one person to work for the Nazis and Lale volunteered to be the one, since his brother was married and had children. Packed into the cattle cars of a train, Lale spent days on the ride from his home to what turned out to be not a workplace but a concentration camp. There, he was told to turn over his possessions, his hair was shaved off, and he was given the clothing of a Russian soldier. On the first night, he was headed to the trench where people relieved themselves when he saw a Nazi open fire on the men who were there, a horrifying way to begin his imprisonment but one that made him vow he would survive till the end of the war.

I can't recall exactly how he became the tattooist and that doesn't matter. The job that Lale was given protected him from trigger-happy guards; and, his determination to behave in a way that would keep him from getting any attention also helped. But while Lale was given extra rations and a safer place to sleep, people were starving around him and he felt obligated to find a way to help them. The Tattooist of Auschwitz describes how one prisoner in a death camp survived, found a way to acquire extra food and medicine to share, met a beautiful prisoner and fell in love, and helped as many as he could to survive.

Recommended but what a gut-wrenching read - It's always difficult reading about life in the concentration camps of WWII but doubly hard when it's nonfiction or based on a true story, as The Tattooist of Auschwitz is. The one thing that really kept me going during a time when I was not in the mood to read about this dark chapter of history was the fact that I knew the author had interviewed Lale. Although he was safer than others, he wasn't completely safe from the possibility of brutality or death. At any moment, Lale could have been taken for torture by Dr. Mengele, whom he frequently encountered, or shot and replaced. But, if the author was able to interview him, clearly he survived.

F2F Report:

We discussed The Tattooist of Auschwitz in my book group, this week, but it was not the best discussion and I found some of the tangents immensely frustrating. It's only natural that the idea of concentration camps would bring up the current situation on our Southern Border. Unfortunately, that meant exposing some of our group's prejudices. I tried to bring up the fact that the path to citizenship is almost impossible for those who enter the country undocumented. "You mean the illegals," one of our members said. Yes, those who enter illegally but then become productive members of society can be here for 25 years, own several businesses, employ dozens of Americans, and still get deported because they don't have the option to become citizens, I thought. But, I didn't say that aloud because I was already feeling outnumbered, by that point. Immigration sadly is a complicated subject that people are determined to simplify. And, as one of our members mentioned, the news skims the surface and doesn't go in depth, complicating our lack of understanding by misleading viewers.

At any rate, we talked about the fact that The Tattooist of Auschwitz was unusual for a Holocaust book because there was a romance and therefore a happy ending, how some parts of the book felt a little exaggerated or questionable to some members, and whether or not Cilka was truly a collaborator or was she a victim of the Nazi who forced her to submit to him. I thought she was a rape victim; someone else called her a prostitute. I don't recall her getting anything in return but the chance to live, but it almost seemed like we read 4 different books. Not the best discussion we've ever had but I'm glad I read the book and I'm always glad I went to my F2F discussions because it's nice to hang out with other book lovers.

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  1. It sounds like a good book although maybe one that's hard to read. I read so much about the Holocaust in high school I couldn't face another book like that for a long time.

    1. I thought it was a hard read but was surprised to find that the other members of my group were pretty united in their thought that The Tattooist of Auschwitz was a happy book, by comparison with most books about the Holocaust. It had a happy ending but otherwise I disagree. It's not happy. Lots of people died and The Tattooist made it clear that as a concentration camp prisoner, anything you did could be a life or death thing: going to the toilet, looking at a Nazi in a way they considered offensive, being in the wrong line, refusing to sleep with a Nazi . . . anything. It's short, though, and the happy ending really helps.


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