Heather Morris Examines the Darkest History
The Holocaust is a topic which I assume doesn’t really need any introduction, namely because I believe it it to be one of the few periods of history which will always merit study at all levels of education. However, in about twenty years we are going to hit the one-hundred year mark from the beginning of the Second World War, and in twenty more after that all those born in that year will likely have passed away. There aren’t many survivors left from that era who can share their first-hand experiences, and each of their stories deserved to be treated with all the attention and dignity we can muster. History might move on by, but we should always strive to remember it. In her novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris shares this kind of history as she recounts the time spent in Auschwitz by her close friend Lale Sokolov.
Just to provide a bit of context, Morris was introduced to Sokolov in 2003, and they spent the following years developing a very close friendship during which the latter shared intimate stories from the Holocaust. The author’s many conversations and interviews with Sokolov are what served as the base for this book. As for the actual content, it focuses on Sokolov’s imprisonment in Auschwitz starting in April 1942, and the slightly different path he walked in comparison to most others. Being fluent in several languages, he was put to work as a tattooist in charge of marking his fellow prisoners, a position of slight privilege which awarded him with many dangerous opportunities to help his people survive. It is in this camp where he makes the acquaintance of a terrified young woman named Gita, and vows to help her not only survive the terrifying ordeal, but also marry her once all is said and done.
The Memory Cannot Die
There are thousands upon thousands of stories from the Holocaust which have seen the light of day, and countless more which are likely to remain unknown for ever-more. I have to admit, as someone who studied the Second World War since high-school with more interest than many, there is an unavoidable desensitization which takes hold as you read about more and more into the atrocities committed. The Tattooist of Auschwitz felt like it broke me out of this trance, as if I was once again engaged anew into the topic as fresh as I was back in the high-school days.
I believe in large part credit is due to Heather Morris on this one, but I found this particular book on the Holocaust to be much better on a technical level than most others. The author’s close relationship with Sokolov is apparent from the early pages and we quickly become privy to the inner world of a man with a very special outlook, one which eventually leads down a path of inhuman perseverance. There are absolutely zero punches pulled as the terrors of the genocide are described to us, and for brief moments we may be able to imagine a minute fraction of the horror Holocaust victims were forced through. While on the whole the story does have a sort of happy ending, I feel it conveys rather accurately the unforgettable nature of this period in history, not only for the victims but for humanity in general.
In the Shoes of the Damned
While I personally do not believe it is possible to actually put any reader into the shoes of a person subjected to a nigh-unimaginable amount of pain and suffering, Heather Morris tries and I believe she comes closer than most others. Because of her friendship with Lale she has the ability to explore his thoughts, emotions, desires, motivations and even philosophy in regards to what is happening. It’s almost as if we ourselves are becoming friends with Sokolov and are forced to witness his agony without being able to do a thing about it… and then we realize millions of others went through the same, if not worse. I feel the author did a commendable job at characterizing this overwhelming, real-life evil most of us will thankfully never have to face.
While the book is indeed a historical account from one man’s perspective, it is also – like much of the Holocaust-related literature – an invaluable exploration of human nature. We get to witness the entire spectrum of beauty and horror, ranging from torture, murder and betrayal to love, compassion and determination. There were some terribly hard-to-read passages demonstrating the absolute worst of human nature, just like there were uplifting and inspiring ones, reminding us what people are really capable of. I found Morris managed to maintain as neutral an outlook as possible when discussing the actions of other prisoners in the camp, reminding us implicitly we can never judge them, no matter how they might look to us; after all, how many of us can say with certainty we would remain honourable when pushed beyond the brink? Ultimately, I felt the author depicted them as fellow human beings who simply want to do the one thing humans have always striven for: survive.
The Final Verdict
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is, in my opinion, one of the more memorable books on the Holocaust, at least in terms of how much it will stick with you. The amount of historical detail taken directly from a survivor’s account is simply invaluable, as well as the various insights we get into the camp, its prisoners and human nature. If you are even remotely interested in the topic of the Holocaust, then I highly recommend you read this book; whether you’re new to the subject or have been studying it for years, I have no doubt you will find tremendous value in the accounts within.