Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 3, 2018

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been very widely publicised and reviewed, a fact which is interesting in itself.  Why, when there are so many books about the Holocaust, has this particular one engaged public attention?  I think it is because it is an Auschwitz made palatable.  This is a sample from an un-named reviewer at a site called Weekend Notes:

I found The Tattooist of Auschwitz to be unlike many other accounts of the holocaust which are, by necessity, bleak, sombre or grim and where it can be sometimes difficult to connect with the characters. In contrast, this account had the opposite effect on me. I was charmed by Lale immediately and found this book incredibly heart-warming in its optimism and humanity. It is a testament to the skill of author, Heather Morris, that you become so immersed in the story and feel such a strong connection with the characters. It was an absolute page-turner as you eagerly wait to learn the fate of Lale and Gita.

The Holocaust as page-turner…

More problematically, the horror of Auschwitz has also been muted by the implied suggestion that survival was possible for those who were wily and determined enough.  Lale’s ‘will to survive’ is critical to this narrative.  Whereas everything I have read about the Holocaust, from Primo Levi to most recently Bella and Chaim tells us that no agency on the part of the Jews made any difference.  Survival was merely a matter of luck, and to assert otherwise is to suggest that Jews could have averted their fate.

Ellen Cregan in her review at Kill Your Darlings puts her finger on the ‘lost opportunities’ of this book when she writes that Morris has set up Lale the Tattooist as a character who embodies sacrifice and devotion and who enjoys relative good fortune because of his multilingualism and his personal qualities.

Some juxtaposition of Lale’s relative good fortune within the camp and the experiences of the more ‘regular’ people who were not valued for anything at all would have, in my opinion, strengthened the novels biographical foundations.

What Cregan identifies here is a problem common to any biographer who becomes fond of her subject, a problem exacerbated by the specific circumstances of a Holocaust survivor.  It’s difficult to interrogate with sufficient rigour the memories of someone you like, and more so if you pity them too.  But even if the intention is not to write a biography with its demands of veracity, but rather a film script of a love story which transcends horror – perhaps somewhat like the film Life is Beautiful – events need to be credible even when they form a narrative which needs dramatic effects to succeed as a film.

On Day 2 of Melbourne Jewish Books Week Heather Morris admitted that she was selective about which elements of Lala’s story to include.  As I wrote in my summary of the session:

Heather Morris talked about being invited to tell the story of an old Jewish man in her book The Tattooist of Auschwitz […] and how she realised that while he was revealing the story of his time in Auschwitz, what he really wanted to tell was the story of his beloved wife.  For the author, this relationship became a friendship that has outlasted his death, and she says that when she hired researchers to confirm the details of his story it horrified her so much that she did not include all of it in the book, because ‘it does no good’ for people to know the horrible things that happened to this lovely old man.

One ‘detail’ that her researchers failed to rectify was Lale’s quest from within the camp to get some penicillin for Gita’s typhus (on page 82).  Penicillin was not available to the public in 1943.  It was discovered in 1928, but mass production proved very difficult and by 1942 researchers had just enough to treat ten patients. In July of 1943 the US was developing a plan to mass produce it, and by 1944 they had enough for military use on D-Day, but even if Lale had known about the existence of penicillin, the idea that there would have been any for Jewish use in the Auschwitz hospital is fanciful if not an obscene distortion of reality, and so is Lale’s purported quest to get some.  Wikipedia says that the drug was not available for civilian use in the US till March 1945 and that Australia was the first country to make it available to the public after the war.

Was this flaw in veracity due to Lale’s faulty memory or to the author’s invention of dialogue to convey that he was distraught about Gita’s illness? The reader can’t know.  There are other incidents which plagued my reading with doubt, identified in other reviews as ‘unbelievable‘ and as ‘an accumulation of implausible details [which] gnaws at reality‘.  This book is badged as a novel based on a true story, so it is difficult to know whether the book’s origin as a screen play has influenced the drama of the narrative arc, and whether incidents which seem unlikely to anyone who’s read a bit of Holocaust literature, are invented or embellished, either by the source or the author.

Bram Presser, author of the award-winning The Book of Dirt, said recently at the Melbourne Jewish Book Week that books about the Holocaust ought to contribute something new, or not be written at all.  And I think he’s right.

Author: Heather Morris
Title: The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Publisher: Echo (Bonnier Publishing) 2018
ISBN: 9781760403171
Review copy courtesy of Echo, via Terry King of Pitch Projects


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. I appreciate your comments, because we’re reading this book for my (non-Jewish) book club and, unlike the writers of a large number of 5-star reviews on Goodreads, I just couldn’t allay my discomfort while reading. I had to keep reminding myself that this is ‘fiction, based on a true story’, but how does a reader know where the fiction begins and ends?
    Perhaps Lale was indeed privileged and able to move around the camp freely, visit the women’s camp, trade diamonds and jewellery, make friends with a sadistic SS guard Baretski (“We’re like brothers, you and I”) and so on, but in focusing on the romance of the story and sugar-coating the rest, the author is in danger of turning testimony into falsehood. My mother and my aunt, Auschwitz survivors, told very different stories of the brutality, inhumanity and suffering that went on there. Of course, it might not make an entertaining story, but using such material for entertainment is disturbing. (I had the same difficulties with the film ‘Life is Beautiful’.)
    “He does his job, offering smiles to children standing by as he numbers their parents, and telling the occasional mum holding an infant what a lovely baby she has.” Really?
    In an era of increasing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, readers without any background knowledge of history could be easily misled.

    • Yes, that is my concern. Time and again, I found myself saying, ‘no’ that’s just not possible. And your book ‘Sister, Sister’ was among others that I thought of that flatly contradict this Holocaust-Lite version of Auschwitz. I was particularly taken aback by the story of the Sonderkommando revolt* where there is not a word about the reprisals afterwards.
      Ok, the author said she checked Lale’s stories, but how could it be possible to check the existence of a smuggling ring that was covert for over two years? What records could there possibly be that large quantities of jewels could be smuggled out of the place where the victims’ belongings were, hidden successfully in a camp that was subject to thorough searches all the time, and then traded with people outside the camp for food that was then smuggled back in, all of it under the noses of the guards? Are we supposed to believe that those same Nazis who set up an elaborate system to steal the clothes of their victims, didn’t notice their prisoners wearing those same warm coats when they went off to work as slave labour? And how long would it have taken for the sudden trade in valuable jewels in the town, to have come to the Nazis’ notice?
      And after liberation, that nonsense about the Russians trusting him with handfuls of jewels & money to solicit women from the town as prostitutes for them… we all know that the Russians did not pay for sex; they used rape as vengeance as and when they felt like it.
      If there were testimony of this man’s role as a saviour of many, it would have been available long before now (and wouldn’t Gita have told everyone how he saved her life and that of others with the extra food?) Baretski would also have used his ‘kindness’ to Lale as a defence in his trial, as so many of them tried to do.
      And if all of the above is the ‘fiction’ – conveying an entirely false view of the horror of Auschwitz – what remains of the truth? Very little, and I think many readers will think that they are reading truth when they are not.
      I think that Morris was probably sincere, but as it stands, and in the absence of her research being in the public domain, the story sounds to me like that of a man who has tried to assuage his feelings of guilt (because he collaborated when he had no choice) with a Walter Mitty story of heroism that only comes to light after his witness, Gita, has died. I don’t blame him for that, but retailing this book as based on a true story only adds to the cause of the deniers. It has the potential to do the same damage as The Apple.
      *For those reading this who do not know about the revolt, see

  3. Excellent review. I haven’t read this and honestly, have been a bit reluctant. I think you put your finger on it when you noted the survival and determination vs luck element. I recently reread Man’s Search for Meaning which obviously has a positive message but as a memoir, you read through a different lens than you would for historical fiction.
    I think I’ll give the Tattooist a miss for now.

    • Thanks, Kate. It wasn’t easy to write this, especially when there are so many positive reviews out there, so I really appreciate your comment.

      • Can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked it up and put it down in the bookshop, each time feeling vaguely uneasy but not quite sure why.
        Murphy’s Law my book group will choose it… 😐

      • Soooo many books I say nothing about because, in the face of so many positive reviews, it seems churlish. But tin this case it needed t be said. Thanks Lisa.

        • Yes, it is difficult to be critical of something like this, but as you say, it needs to be said.

  4. Well, I won’t be reading this one, that’s for sure. I’ve felt doubts when reading about it and you just *can’t* sanitise the Holocaust – it *has* to be shown in all its horror. Frankly, I think this book borders on dangerous, and the author is wrong to say that it does no good for people to know of the horrible things that happened. That is *precisely* what we need to know so that this kind of thing can never happen again (although that knowledge doesn’t seem to have stopped genocide happening since – what is it with humans??) The more I think about your very lucid and sensible review, the more I agree with what you say and the angrier I get. Selling this as a true story or some kind of history with nothing to support the veracity of what is says is very, very wrong.

    • Yes, I thought that was an odd thing to say… and I wondered whether it was that *she* didn’t want to think about the horrible things that happened to him. I can certainly relate to that because I’ve known a few Holocaust survivors, all dead now, and although they never talked about it with me, I knew about the Holocaust anyway from my mother. And I did not like to think about what they had been through. I can imagine that hearing any Holocaust story in depth must take a toll on the listener.

  5. I’m one of those people who wrote a positive review of this, but I think in our exchange in the comments, Lisa, we agreed it was important to tell Holocaust stories to a generalist / uneducated audience. I see now that yes, there are some unpalatable aspects to this book (I don’t agree with the author’s comment that you should gloss over the horror, for instance), but there are whole swathes of readers out there who won’t read dark / distressing / literary books and if they read this one and enjoyed it then perhaps they’ll be less reluctant to pick up other more realistic Holocaust novels or actual testimonies / memoirs and thereby learn more.

    • Yes, I still think it’s true that books for a generalist audience have an important role to play. But the more I think about what I quoted in the review from Weekend Notes, the more I think, where have we gone wrong when people don’t want to know about history unless they can connect with the characters?
      The irony is that I’ve just finished reading this year’s Vogel winner, which is a very dark tale indeed, and I just know it’s going to romp off the shelves because horrifying stories about evil people are very popular …

  6. As the granddaughter and niece of two survivors of Mauthausen , (not Jewish) all I can say is that not knowing leaves too many questions. Despite having another uncle in the Dutch Resistance, I only heard the Mauthausen story eight years ago. Every time I look at my boy Father in the little Tyrolean outfit bought to wear to his Sisters wedding. I think of the terrible price paid for an outfit of clothing. My Opa and Uncle were taken as slaves to work in Austria and were imprisoned for smuggling the outfits for my boy Dad and another Uncle. To sanitise the experiences of camp inmates does the world a disservice and plays into the hands of the deniers.

    • Oh my goodness, that is a terrible price indeed. I don’t think we will ever understand how they could have been so cruel and heartless…

      • It was, but my point is that it did happen and books like this that gloss over it don’t do anybody any favours except (maybe) the author and the publisher, as they are more palatable reads than the honest truth.

        • Well, I think especially now with the resurgence of fascist groups, it’s very important for people to see where it can lead. So I can’t agree with the author that ‘it does no good’ to be truthful about what happened.
          (However, I must admit that one of the things I’ve learned since the rise of consumer reviews about books, is that there are readers who won’t read anything unless it conforms to their banal view of what a book should be. At least the reviewer from Weekend Notes had read some books about the Holocaust even though she found it hard to ‘connect’ with them.)

  7. Argh. This sounds like a bloody irresponsible book, honestly.

    • It makes me think that young people working in the publishing industry need to realise that there are special responsibilities in dealing with any book about the Holocaust.

      • …and also that consumers keen for another book-club-ready hit need to recognise why it’s seriously problematic/gross to treat the Holocaust as emotional set dressing.

        • Yes, indeed. But when the current crop of Royals thinks it’s ok to dress up in a Nazi uniform for a fancy-dress party *and* the world’s media just airbrushes his behaviour away, it’s hard to get that message out.

          • True. (Though he seems to have left that behind him. But casual racism among the aristocracy, and even just rich people, is not exactly uncommon.)

            • Oh let’s face it, their PR team wouldn’t let us know what their attitudes are. But I thought it significant that Granny didn’t make a public statement of apology about it at the time.

              • Hah. True. (Relatedly, the inevitable articles on whether Meghan Markle is the new Wallis Simpson spectacularly fail to acknowledge the salient fact that Wallis Simpson was a racist Nazi who happily toured concentration camps.)

                • You may not believe this, but that was a piece of pop culture that had passed me by. The *only* thing I know about the Royal import is her name and that she comes from the US and I know that from being unable to avoid the headlines. But I have managed to ignore everything else by just not reading/watching any of it. She could walk up to me on the street and I wouldn’t recognise her.
                  PS It is also possible not to know anything but the names of the Kardishians (sp?). I saw her on Ellen once which I used to watch sometimes with my father when he was in aged care. Never having watched TV much in his life, he took to watching all kinds of odd things in his last year of life! But it is my recollection that the Kardashian that was on the show had nothing memorable to say so I still know nothing about her. Or them. Or even how many of them there are. (As with the Royals. I have lost count).

  8. I am relieved to see the comments here because they reinforced my initial reaction to this book’s early reviews. I grew up in Australia with many children whose parents had survived The Holocaust.
    Like Anna Rosner Blay, I could not accept the film, Life is Beautiful, or another, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I readliy accept that goodness and purity at times transcended the horror of the camps, but fleeting moments of joy in a nightmare are no more than chance. We all need to tread much more warily when appropriating the stories of others, no matter how well-intentioned we might be.

    • Yes, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, another one that I felt dubious about…

  9. I share your unease, Lisa, and am troubled by the author’s comments at Jewish Book Week. As for the penicillin blooper — Lale might have had a memory of one of the early treatments, a sulphur drug or whatever, and got confused — that comes down in the end to poor editing. Such anachronistic mistakes abound these days. Coincidentally, I am reading Philippe Sands’ East West Street. Says Anthony Beevor of the book: ‘No novel could possibly match such an important work of truth.’

    • Ah yes, East West Street, that’s a brilliant book. I read it recently and found it a rare example of a book that lives up to its reputation.

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