Last November, the American comedian Larry David came under fire for a joke about flirting with women at concentration camps. What, pondered David, in a comic sketch widely slammed by Jews and non-Jews alike, would his Auschwitz chat-up line have been?
For Ludwig “Lale” Eisenberg — the true-life subject of Heather Morris’s debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz — who died in 2003, Larry David’s question was no laughing matter. “How to even begin? How to address her?” Lale racked his brain, the first time he wrote in secret to the woman he had fallen for — actually at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In Morris’s book, the young Slovak, aged 25 when he arrives at the notorious concentration camp in April 1942, is soon put to work as the camp’s Tätowierer, the person tasked with tattooing a serial number on all camp inmates.
It is under such hellish circumstances that Lale meets Gisela “Gita” Furhmannova, a young woman he knows only by the number he has painfully etched into her arm, and thinks of as the prisoner with the dark brown eyes.
The enterprising, headstrong Lale is a born survivor. “My life is too good to end in this s***hole,” he tells himself on the freight cart transporting him to the camp.
With an instinctive understanding that knowledge here can literally make the difference between life and death, Lale, fluent in several European languages, is soon eavesdropping on conversations between SS guards, and befriending Russian prisoners of war.
Over time, an unsettling dynamic develops between Lale and SS officer Stefan Baretski. The latter is quick to remind Lale that he could kill the Jewish prisoner on a whim, but also opens up about women and his abusive childhood.
Unbelievably, the guard noted for his sadism and enthusiasm at selections on “the ramp”, who would be sentenced to life imprisonment at the 1963 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, acts a messenger between Lale and fellow Slovak, Gita.
In describing their courtship, Morris’s prose can sometimes lapse into that of a bad Hollywood script (the book was in fact originally conceived as a screenplay): two starving Auschwitz prisoners ripping off their clothes to have sex, for example.
Or a description of Lale spending “long hot summer days with Gita, or with thoughts of her”, during a period when an estimated 330,000 Hungarian Jews are sent to their deaths.
Rather than the novel’s love story, perhaps, the disturbing psychology driving the relationship between Lale and Baretski might have proved a more complex, rewarding element for Morris to have explored.
For decades, Lale never revealed what he did during the Shoah, fearing he would be mistaken for a Nazi collaborator — as Tätowierer, he officially worked for the political wing of the SS.
In reality, however, Lale used his small privileges in order to assist others, whether trading the jewellery of murdered Jews to bring in food and medicine for those in need, or giving away his extra rations.
He was also a pillar of emotional support to many, including Leon, Lale’s assistant who was castrated by Dr Mengele. Or 41-year-old Roma, Nadya: the Tätowierer is distraught when, after several months in their own encampment, Nadya and the remaining Roma are sent to the gas chambers.
It took three years of thrice-weekly meetings between Lale Eisenberg and Heather Morris for the author to gain the survivor’s trust.
For that alone, readers should be indebted to Morris: Lale was a man of Herculean moral strength, and his Odyssean story of humanity, survival and eventual reunion with Gita, deserves a wide audience.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz By Heather Morris, Bonnier Zaffre, £12.99
Sophie Cohen is a freelance writer