The question is: How accurate does an author have to be when writing an historical novel? If it’s fiction shouldn’t they be allowed to take some poetic license, otherwise the book would be more in the nonfiction realm. Well then, do certain topics require a heavier touch? Perhaps books covering more recent history need to be a little more accurate than most so as not to offend those who have lived through those events. (The Cellist from the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo had some harsh works for the author Steve Galloway for adding his own twist to this real life occurrence). What about The Holocaust? While the survivors are quickly reaching the end of their lives, places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum maintain vast records documenting the details surrounding the Nazi concentration camps. They are obsessed about the truth and find offense in inaccuracies which they fear will be fodder for those who believe the Holocaust was a hoax.
Heather Morris had the opportunity to meet Lali Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who while imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 was forced to tattoo numbers onto the arms of thousands of incoming prisoners. At the age of 87, Lali was looking for someone to record his story and what an incredible tale he had to tell. Over a period of three years Morris met with the Holocaust survivor taking extensive notes. After his death in 2006, she created a screen play based on her interviews, but she eventually revised her efforts and published a fiction novel entitled The Tattooist of Auschwitz, changing a few of the details to dramatize the story. Based on this publication, Lali’s story is in the process of becoming a miniseries (although written by Jacquelin Perske and not Morris) with an air date sometime in January 2020 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz (consisting of Auschwitz and its sub-camps, Birkenau and Monowitz) was the only death camp where the prisoners were tattooed, using a series of numbers and sometimes letters to identify not just the captive but the circumstances which led them to be imprisoned. The Tattooist of Auschwitz centers on the charismatic and plucky Lale whose adeptness at five + languages resulted in the “privilege” of being selected as the concentration camp tattooist with all the “perks” which accompanied that position. With sleeping and eating arrangements far superior to those of the other captives, Lale had a better chance of survival. However, by “cooperating” with the enemy, even if under the threat of death for disobeying orders, he feared retribution from the other inhabitants of the camp whose situations were so much more untenable. The reality was that his loyalties remained with his “friends” and he regularly slipped extra rations to those in need. Through ingenuity, chutzpah, and luck, Lale found a way to acquire and distribute contraband allowing some relief from the constant hunger endured by the prisoners. Ultimately this book takes a romantic turn when Lale meets the love of his life, Gita, inspiring a determination that the two of them would survive this ordeal despite the numerous obstacles which stood in the way of them achieving this seemingly impossible dream.
So what is the uproar about the lack of authenticity all about? Morris, living in Australia, made the mistake of claiming this book was thoroughly researched and 95% accurate, a claim she had to walk back when some glaring recognizable errors as well as a host of logistical inaccuracies were revealed. This raised the hackles of The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum who felt that since the book was based on an actual survivor of the holocaust, the author had a greater responsibility when presenting this story to the world.
Morris responded that she would leave the facts to the historians and the museum decided to treat the novel as “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”, which is just fine for the majority of readers who responded positively to this book. Of interest is the comment made by Heather Morris stating that Lali applauded the idea that she was not Jewish, wanting someone with a clean slate to portray his traumatic tale, an opportunity she used to create her debut novel.
While I was annoyed at some of the bigger gaffs (such as Lale obtaining the unavailable penicillin on the black market to treat Typhus when PABA was the accepted treatment at the time), it was the actual writing style which disappointed me. I also felt there should have been more depth in the characterizations and that certain events could have been more fully explored in the plot line. Written in the present tense, this novel reflects the fact that the original intent was to present a screenplay, not a book. Which is not to say that this story isn’t worth reading, it’s just that I expected more.
Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Bonner Publishjng Australia for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.