Tanya Gold

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is Holocaust entertainment for non-Jews

It allows the reader to pretend an interest in, and care for, Jewish suffering that rarely extends to Jews who are alive


Anna Próchniak as Gita Furman in Auschwitz.

May 16, 2024 10:01

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris’s 2018 novel about a Jew in Birkenau, has become a TV series because hunger for mainstream entertainment about the Shoah is insatiable. It is consoling - if you are not a Jew – and exciting, again if you are not a Jew. If you are very cynical, as I am, you may think it allows the reader to pretend an interest in, and care for, Jewish suffering that rarely extends to Jews who are alive. I wonder the two are connected. I watched “progressives” leave a cinema after watching The Zone of Interest, chirping to each other, and I can’t imagine any of them standing, or even sitting, in solidarity with Jews. But they saw the film, drank a glass of wine, and can now tell themselves they are good and educated people because they watched a film about the Shoah, and can now get back to the business of despising living Jews. That we understand this, and they don’t, is part of the anguish, and the joke. If this interests you, read Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews.

It is true that Morris’s book is about a real person: the Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov, who was the tattooist at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942-45. He fell in love with a fellow prisoner named Gisela Fuhrmannova, married her after the war, moved to Melbourne, and lived a useful life. Lale met Morris in the years before between Gisela’s death and his own. He told her his story, I think, because he wanted absolution for surviving. He didn’t need it and, even if he did, it won’t come from a writer as credulous and self-important as Morris. The blurb says she meticulously reproduces Lale’s fate. She doesn't. She can't. (The Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre published a list of factual errors too long to type. Some are so basic they could have been resolved in an hour). She published 12 years after his death, and I wonder if that is important: the distance allowed her greater freedom to dream.

And she does. In Morris’s hands Lale is a magic Jew: ever-imaginative, resourceful and lucky. Promoted to tattooist, and so saved, he has freedom of movement in the camps, and he dispenses food, medicine, even life itself. The problem with this, of course, is that death in Auschwitz – and almost all died, the majority on arrival – becomes, by compare, a sort of moral failure: a lack of imagination, resource and luck. For those who don’t understand Birkenau – and you wouldn’t read this book if you did, and if this is all you read you wouldn’t – it brings un-magic Jews and Nazi psychopaths no closer.

The prose style is a minor crime. “Her eyes dance before him”. “His heart skips a beat”. “His mind [is] a whirlpool”. He works “around the clock”. (Too many transports, you see: it’s exhausting.) “Flowers. He learned from a young age, from his mother, that women love them”.

Or, Lale says, “always dress to impress”. Lale is quite keen on fashion. On meeting the SS for the first time he thinks: “Under different circumstances he might appreciate the tailoring”. Would he? “I’m just a number,” Gisela tells him. “You should know that. You gave it to me.” As I read this junk, I write a parallel musical in my head and I think: if that doesn’t close Act 2, what can? There is a rogue, too: Josef Mengele, who is a sort of pantomime villain like Captain Hook. He stalks around with a soul “colder than his scalpel”, smirks and steals people’s testicles. It never happened.

It is true that The Tattooist of Auschwitz is not as obscene as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, whose Jewish child, Shmuel, is a Christian-style cipher in a tale of Nazi redemption. Rather, Morris offers a mawkish grand romance which she finds very moving, but which made me nauseous when I wasn’t laughing.

If you want to read about the Shoah read histories and memoir. Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and Elie Wiesel’s Night are partial, but they don’t pretend to be anything else. Levi himself said: “We who survived the camps are not true witnesses. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless”. But that is Levi, not Morris, who has the gumption to write Mills & Boon in hell. It fulfils the criteria of the Shoah novel for idiots, at least. It makes the reader feel better, know less, and care less, about the people who are fictionalised. That is, they die twice.

Still, there’s laughter in the trying. I would have called it Under a Birkenau Moon. Or Love Macht Frei.

May 16, 2024 10:01

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