Perhaps the three scariest words in the history of human imagination were cast in iron atop a gate leading directly into the closest approximation of hell ever erected on earth: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. “Work sets you free.” The banal words that were nothing more than a cruel and tragic joke for thousands turned out to have a deeper meaning for Lale Sokolov, an Auschwitz survivor and the real-life hero of Heather Morris’ extraordinary debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Like the Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel’s Night, Morris’ work takes us inside the day-to-day workings of the most notorious German death camp. Over the course of three years, Morris interviewed Lale, teasing out his memories and weaving them into her heart-rending narrative of a Jew whose unlikely forced occupation as a tattooist put him in a position to act with kindness and humanity in a place where both were nearly extinct. While Lale’s story is told at one remove—he held his recollections inside for more than half a century, fearing he might be branded as a collaborator—it is no less moving, no less horrifying, no less true.
Just as a flower can grow through a sidewalk’s crack, so too can love spring and flourish in the midst of unspeakable horror, and so it is that Lale meets his lifelong love, Gita, when he inscribes the number 34902 on her arm. With the same level of inventiveness, dedication and adoration displayed by Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, Lale endeavors to preserve their love (and safety) amid the horrors.
Make no mistake—horrors abound. At one point, Lale is called to identify two corpses seemingly marked with the same number, which is anathema to the camp’s meticulous record keepers. Upon emerging from the crematorium, Lale is greeted by his Nazi handler, Baretski: “You know something, Tätowierer? I bet you are the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked back out of it.”
For decade upon decade, Lale’s story was one that desperately needed to be told. And now, as the number of those who witnessed the terror that was Nazi Germany dwindles, it is a story that desperately needs to be read. The disgraceful words that once stood over Auschwitz must be replaced with others: Never forget. Never again.