Books: Dangerous myths

Heather Morris’s ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ is oblivious to the complexity and horror of the Holocaust.

A Holocaust survivor shows the number that was tattooed on his arm in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
A Holocaust survivor shows the number that was tattooed on his arm in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
The Holocaust was, as Claude Lanzmann said, “not an aberration of history, it was the ultimate and inevitable consequence – the final solution, in other words, of a long historical discourse.”
Which is precisely why all Holocaust novels carry with them a tremendous burden to write about the Jewish genocide within the sacred realm of Jewish memory.
Heather Morris’s new novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, stunningly fails to do so. Her story, which she claims is 95% true and based on the many years she spent interviewing Lale Sokolov before his death in 2006 at 90, quickly crumbles into a montage of cringe-worthy moments. Morris transforms his tale into a Hollywood-styled drama with Sokolov – the Jewish man who tattooed inmates at Auschwitz – depicted skimpily as an uncomplicated heroic figure who seemed to survive due to the force of his will and cunning; thus inadvertently demeaning the memories of those who did not.
She seems desperate to turn his experiences into something redemptive; thus glossing over the horrors of the Holocaust and disturbing the reader with a sensibility that seems oblivious to the stark reality that the Holocaust is not the setting for sentimental journeys of any kind. To try to insist otherwise is obscene, regardless of her seemingly innocuous intentions.
Morris met Lale Sokolov when he was already in his late 80s and his wife had recently died. Sokolov, born in 1916 in Slovakia, met his wife Gita in Auschwitz when he tattooed her and claims to have fallen instantly in love with her at that moment. Amazingly, they both survived and made their home in Australia, where Sokolov ran his own textile business. His wife, who was also from Slovakia, never spoke a word about her experiences in Auschwitz. They both lost their families to the Nazis. Sokolov waited until her death to hire Morris to help him tell his story; still concerned about what people were going to think about him; but wanting his story to be known.
He particularly liked that Morris wasn’t Jewish, since he felt her background prevented her from bringing her own “baggage” to the story. But it is precisely this “baggage” that is sorely missing from her flimsy narrative. Sokolov shared with Morris his most intimate memories. She would stare at the fading number on his arm; 32407: and look into his glistening eyes determined to bring justice to his story. But she seems oblivious to the complexity of the event; as well as the ongoing struggles of Jews with antisemitism, or the hidden biases she herself seems to carry.
Morris never mourns for the Jews. Instead, she tries to create a romantic love story that is comprehensible and consistent, even chronologically coherent; and never speaks to the chaos and complexity and utter impenetrability that surely underlay the Sokolovs’ relationship.
Sokolov’s position as the tattooist probably saved his life. He had a private room and extra rations. He arranged for Gita to work indoors as a clerk, greatly enhancing her chances of survival. He wanted Morris to know that he tried to help other Jews in the camp by selling contraband taken from the corpses to locals who worked in the camps in exchange for food which he would share with the others. He was often tormented by Mengele, who would linger by his station ready to choose his newest recruits. He spoke several languages, which helped him keep control over new arrivals since he could speak with them in their native tongues.
Morris transforms Sokolov’s story into episodes of daring grandeur that feel forced – including a narrative where he tries to befriend his SS superior with tips about how to get a girl.
In between awkward bouts of dialogue, Morris provides us with a litany of the usual Holocaust camp depictions of corpses being piled atop one another, people being shot, the smell of the crematoriums, and the desperation of starving and sick Jews being beaten by the Nazis.
The scary thing about Morris’s book is that it will probably receive a wide audience due to its intriguing title and the perverse titillation it promises readers about finding love amidst the ashes, about somehow finding within yourself the power to survive anything if you simply decide to do so. Such myths are dangerous and degrading to all those who suffered in the Holocaust.
And that is the real problem with this book. Morris seems clueless about the incredible horrors of the Shoah and the willful participation of so many who gladly partook in the planned destruction of the Jews. That is why anyone versed in Holocaust literature understands that the most eloquent writers on the subject usually remain embedded on the margins and write from a gray zone of confused melancholy, almost as if they are afraid to get too close. As if they understand that there are land mines everywhere that they can’t see. They embrace the fragmentation and digressions and shifts in memory that naturally inhabit those who have been traumatized, and their descendants, and in their re-imagining of this trauma, they tread lightly. They know that suffering of such intensity can’t be seen or felt directly. It must sneak up on the reader and catch them off guard. These writers remain convinced of their own fallibility; they know there is much they will never know.
More than a million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz. The late Elie Wiesel, who was in Auschwitz as a young man, agonized for many years about whether he had the right to try to describe what he himself had endured. He wondered late into his life whether silence would have been a better alternative; dismayed at representations of the Holocaust that he felt demeaned it. He asked himself what Morris never stops to consider: “Do I have the right to represent the multitudes that have perished… No one may represent the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions… and yet, I sense their presence, I always do.”