What’s it about?
Based On An Incredible True Story
What makes a survivor?
Lale Sokolov is well-dressed, a charmer, a ladies’ man. He is also a Jew. On the first transport of men 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 Tetovierer – the tattooist – to mark his fellow prisoners, forever.
One day as Lale is tattooing the arm of a young woman, he looks into her eyes and falls instantly in love.
His life given purpose, Lale does his best through the struggle and suffering to use his position for good.
This story, full of beauty and hope, is based on years of interviews author Heather Morris conducted with real-life Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov. It is heart-wrenching, illuminating, and unforgettable.
No matter how many historical novels of this nature I read – and I’ve read about a dozen books about WWII already – it’ll never ever be enough to grasp the entirity of monstrocities that fell upon those held captive and how they found the strength to survive these atrocities. The number of testimonies from survivors is unfortunately dwindling fast as time goes by and I’m very grateful that Lale Sokolov found the courage to revisit his past and share his personal story. It’s a cruel legacy of an era but so important that we never forget.
I’ve actually met Lale as a character in plenty of books before, without him ever being named. He was always someone in the periphery of a story but I never thought about the person who actually saw everyone still so unknowing of what was waiting for them when they entered those gates of Birkenau or Auschwitz, and gave them their camp number. Lale has the job of Tettovierer, one of the better jobs that gives him a better place to sleep, more food and a little bit more freedom to help others. He has a guard with him every time he goes to work called Baretski but he was able to talk to his guard and was treated fairly well by him given the circumstances.
He’s such a gentle soul and Lale felt particularly bad tattooing old people and young girls because he knew the first group’s fate was sealed and that Mengele had an unhealthy interest in the second group. Mengele often came by to inspect the new arrivals and to select new girls for whatever he had in mind. Lale didn’t want to hurt the girls so he did his best to be tender. He grew up with respect for girls and women, his mother taught him well.
However barbaric and hellish life was, there is beauty to be found in this novel as well. It’s hard to believe but in these grisly circumstances, where there’s nothing left to enjoy and happiness is nothing but an alien feeling, two people were able to find love. Lale falls in love the moment he lays eyes on a girl waiting to be tattooed. It’s quite incredible that the ability to still feel so much for someone never dies. The contrast with his surroundings couldn’t be bigger and made me feel it even deeper. Lale falls heads over heels for Gita and it strengthens his resolve to go on another day and another… I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier about a love story than now. I wished it so hard for them, they were so deserving of each other and I could only hope with all my heart it wouldn’t come to a cruel end. Loving someone when you don’t have the power to safeguard them, when you don’t know if they are still going to be there the next day, is dangerous but a risk Lale is willing to take. The heart can’t be dictated and I found tremendous joy in the fact the SS weren’t able to take that away at least.
I really admired Lale from the very start of this novel, his positivity and his determination to survive shine through from the very beginning and it was wonderful to see how he tries to give Gita hope when she sees none. He’s her light at the end of the tunnel and she means everything to him too. Heather Morris did a brilliant job writing Lale’s personal story, and even though it was a very compelling testimony and there were still many sad moments to get through, the overruling feeling after I finished it is one of warmth and contentment for these two individuals. Lale and Gita’s love story was a perfect counterweight for the predominant harshness of this novel.
I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher through Netgalley. This is my honest opinion.