Concentration camps. Two words with visceral impact; words that conjure ghastly images of desolation. The remnants of Hitler’s execrable execution of a prolonged Jewish genocide alongside the violent persecution of other Nazi-opposing peoples (determined on political, ideological, religious, or behavioral grounds). These concentration camps scattered across Europe are Hitler’s imprint on the world, now permanent testaments of humanity’s capacity for devastating evil.
This history must never be forgotten. A single thought on the Holocaust should leave behind a vitriolic taste. If not, then over the stretch of a mere sixty-five years the world has removed the harrowing truth naturally attached to this historical atrocity—one of the most tragic epochs in recent decades.
Heather Morris’s novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz exemplifies such emotional rupturing; it is a story that detaches the lived agony suffered by displaced millions—men, women, and children alike—from this history. Morris approaches the heavy reality of life in Auschwitz with a seeming indifference and certain deficient research. She writes with an undeveloped, talentless voice that buries the wretched screams from lost lives, suffocates tortured voices under an infelicitous, blasé rendering of a true Holocaust survivor’s life-altering story.
A glance at any chapter demonstrates the sheer lack of emotion brought to this historical fiction—and the “fictional” aspect of this chosen genre in no way justifies the abuse enacted by Heather Morris on this history or Lale Sokolov’s life story. There are giggling groups of prisoners sauntering around supposed recreational areas in Auschwitz to an organized soccer game between the imprisoned—who in reality were emaciated and drained of physical strength—against the SS guards, and then Lale bribing the Kapo with chocolate (of which the starving and oppressed townspeople unexplainably had copious amounts) for risqué clandestine meetings with Gita in the barracks. Overall, Morris presents a wholly unrealistic, insensitive, and, worst of all, an appallingly romanticized version of life within a concentration camp. The tone is inappropriate; the content is ludicrous.
Morris’s writing abilities—or, more accurately, the absence thereof—are far better equipped for a tawdry teenage high-school fling than for rendering a commemoration to the landscape of trauma so unfathomable to this author. The consequence of this ill-suited marriage of writer and story is a disgraceful, highly offensive, utterly inaccurate interpretation of Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest Nazi concentration camp.
Morris may have sincerely desired to show the depth of horror that defines the Holocaust; yet, no credit for such an accomplishment can be awarded to The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Amidst misguided encomiums on Morris’s debut novel, there is one critique that demands attention. That from perhaps the most crucial voices on Morris’s historical topic: the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Research Center.
Dr. Wanda Witek-Malicka of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Research Center wrote a scholarly article analyzing the historical accuracy of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Witek-Malicaka states that “the reality of the war, especially the historical and socio-psychological context of the concentration camp, has been fictionalised and poetised in this book” because it “contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts; as well as overinterpretations, misinterpretations and understatements on which the overall inauthentic picture of the camp reality is built.” The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial in a tweet responding to a praise-filled review of the book accused Morris of “creating a distorted version of Auschwitz” that is “dangerous and disrespectful to history.”
Morris’s inept prose prevents any reader from understanding the profound resilience of Holocaust survivors who eventually forged lives under the shadow of such a traumatic past. This haphazard retelling of Lale and Gita Sokolov’s experiences masks reality by disseminating fallacious ideas on what life at a concentration camp entailed. Even so, it in no way detracts from the lived torture or true, shocking beauty of this survival tale which it utterly misrepresents. Morris’s defective tale cannot physically alter the memories held by the Sokolov family no more than it should influence the world’s remembrance of the Holocaust.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a false narrative of social and personal histories. A sad excuse for even a fictionalized memoir.
2 thoughts on “The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris: A Book Review”
This sounds really disappointing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – I’ll give it a pass.
I’ve noticed with some newer historical fiction that the stories sound really interesting, but the writing just isn’t compelling. Sometimes the stories deserve better, as you pointed out.
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Agreed; I have found that issue to be quite common within contemporary works of historical fiction as well. Which is too bad because I love to find well-written, original, interesting, impactful historical fiction novels.
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