For those of us who never lived through the Holocaust, the horror of what happened to those who suffered can seem insurmountable. It’s the kind of traumatic event that we cannot even begin to imagine, a pain so deep that we cannot begin to fathom. We can try to understand, but unless we lived through those horrors ourselves, no amount of imagination could possibly compare to what people went through.
So in an effort to understand, we quantify. We look at the facts and statistics and claim to know what happened. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. One-and-a-half million were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp alone. People were stripped of their dignity, their religion, their belief system, rounded up like cattle and slaughtered for it.
But knowing these things isn’t the same as understanding. To understand we need to hear the stories of survivors, share a bit of the burden of their pain. Because the six million people that were killed aren’t just a number – they are six million individual people: mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, wives, husbands, children, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends…
Unless and until we start to personify those numbers and see them as real people with real stories, we will never understand.
That is what Heather Morris does in her debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
The incredible story of the Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist and the woman he loved.
Lale Sokolov is well-dressed, a charmer, a ladies’ man. He is also a Jew. On the first transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz in 1942, Lale immediately stands out to his fellow prisoners. In the camp, he is looked up to, looked out for, and put to work in the privileged position of Tätowierer– the tattooist – to mark his fellow prisoners, forever. One of them is a young woman, Gita, who steals his heart at first glance.
His life given new purpose, Lale does his best through the struggle and suffering to use his position for good.
Morris’ meeting with Lale was the beginning of telling the world an incredible story. The story he wanted to tell Morris was his love story with a girl, Gita, during a time where it seemed that love and compassion no longer existed. Morris spent the next three years interviewing Sokolov for the book that details the pair’s time together in Auschwitz-Birkenau, documenting how they fell in love while enduring unimaginable hardships and atrocities.
Their story is one that showed how in the face of horror, the prisoners in the camp help hope.
This incredible story is a very real one with real horrors and real hardships. But more than anything it has a very powerful message. The Holocaust happened, and there were survivors. In Morris’ story she told them of the hope, love and courage of two people who went through it and survived the very worst that humanity could throw at them. Two people who were incredibly lucky to have a happy ending.
As a result of this, the message in The Tattooist of Auschwitz is same words that Lale lived by, the words that got him through the worst times in his life:
“If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.”
― Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz
For most of us, Lale and Gina’s story resonated and taught us more about the Holocaust than the statistics and facts given to us. Instead of being told that six million people suffered, Morris told us the story of just two people. It’s this microcosm, this idea of turning a huge number and statistic into a powerful story, which means we can relate to what they went through in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It allows us to understand better. We can feel the pain of those two people. We can feel their deprivation and their hope.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of two ordinary people, living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but their dignity, their names, and their identities, and it is Lale’s account of what they needed to do to survive.
Morris hasn’t written yet another story about the Holocaust; she’s written a Holocaust survivor story – Lale and Gita’s story.