These are stories that need to be told. There really is no such thing as ‘too much’ writing about the atrocities of the holocaust: no amount of literature can ever capture the horror or fill the void left by the slaughter of innocent millions.
Lale Sokolov’s story deserves to be told. A young Slovak, Lale arrives at Auschwitz in 1942 and is soon assigned the Tatowierer of the camp, instructed to forever mark those arriving at the camps with numbered tattoos. From now on, the prisoners are property.
Keeping his wits about him and using his language skills to his advantage, he manages to navigate the dangerous territory of prisoner whilst simultaneously trying to win favours with the enemy guards and procure contraband for his fellow inmates. Never once does he forget that his life is ultimately disposable. Even as he reaches a tenuous understanding with Baretski, his Nazi minder, he never fails to remember that he could be shot dead at any moment.
Despite being one of the most harrowing chapters in modern history, Lale’s story shows how good human impulses: friendship, generosity, empathy – persist in even the darkest of places. It isn’t long before Lale meets Gita, and quickly – despite everything – they fall in love.
‘Back in his room, Lale carefully places the precious flower beside his bed before falling into a dreamless sleep. But the next morning when he wakes, the petals from his flower have separated and lie curled up beside the black centre. Death alone persists in this place.’
It isn’t easy to be in love in a camp of death. But we are reminded that some semblance of life went on in these places, against all odds.
This narrative is a true story told not only through a fog of history and distance of memory, but also with the flair of poetic license. There is no doubting that this is a remarkable story and I have nothing but respect for those brave enough to tell their stories after enduring such unspeakable suffering. And I wanted to love this book – as so many thousands of others have.
The problem I had was with the way the story was told. There was a sense of detachment, a lack of immediacy and an absence of true character development or atmosphere crafting. We were given surface information, and the history was retold in a transactional way that lacked the depth and emotion befitting of a story about the horrors of the Nazi regime.
The final few chapters, told in a summative fashion with disconcerting brevity, consolidated how I had felt during the rest of the novel: this story simply fell short on craft, and as such it didn’t pack the punch or wield the power it should have done.
That said, the author should be admired for her work in capturing Lale’s story and her commitment to making sure his history endures – lest anyone dare to forget how easily humans can inflict acts of unimaginable cruelty upon each other, and how important it is to remember our not so distant past.
”He never considered himself naïve. Like so many living in Europe at that time, he was worried about the rise of Hitler… but he couldn’t accept that the Nazis would invade Slovakia. They didn’t need to. The government was giving them what they wanted…”