The Tattooist of Auschwitz

by Heather Morris

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz Summary

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a 2018 novel by Heather Morris about a Slovakian Jewish man named Lale who spends several years interned at the Auschwitz death camp during World War II.

  • Lale resolves to leave the camp alive after witnessing the atrocities committed therein.
  • Lale is fortunate to be hires as the camp tattooist. He begins trading with civilian contractors to bring goods into the camp.
  • Lale falls in love with a young woman named Gita. When she falls ill, he acquires medicine to save her life.
  • After Russians storm the camp, Lale and Gita are separated. They later reunite back in Slovakia.

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Last Updated on June 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224

Lale is a twenty-five-year-old Slovakian Jewish man on a German transport in Poland during the Second World War. He does not know where he is headed, only that he is crowded into a train with many other anxious, hungry, and exhausted Jewish men. Eventually, the train arrives at the Nazi work camp of Auschwitz. Forced into the camp at gunpoint by SS officers, all the men are tattooed with five-digit numbers, stripped, and sent to crowded blocks for the night. Lale begins to realize just how dire his circumstances are. In the night, he awakes and goes outside to use the latrine, where he sees some SS officers shoot and kill three men. Witnessing this, Lale vows to leave the camp alive.

In his next few days at Auschwitz, Lale learns that in order to survive, he must keep his head down and find ways to become friendly with the SS officers and his block’s kapo. He hopes that in doing so he is not betraying his people. Chatting with some of the Russian workers, Lale learns that they are in the process of building a concentration camp. One day, Lale watches as an entire bus of men is gassed to death. Shortly thereafter, Lale falls sick with typhus. Rescued from the “death cart” by a friend from the train, Lale is nursed back to health by the men in his block and the tattooist of the camp, Pepan. Pepan was a French academic before his imprisonment at Auschwitz, and he offers Lale a job as his assistant tattooist. Lale is granted some political protection by his new status as camp tattooist.

During his daily tattooing of new transports, Lale makes eye contact with the woman he is tattooing, and he is struck by her beautiful eyes. Before they have the chance to speak to each other, she is moved along the line. A few days later, Pepan is gone, and Lale is assigned the position of tattooist. He is given his own block and more generous rations. Wanting to pay forward Pepan’s generosity, Lale asks for an assistant tattooist, knowing that he can extend his circle of protection to another prisoner. He is assigned a man from a new transport named Leon. The two men are overseen by an SS officer named Baretski. Lale and Baretski have an uneasy friendship, and Baretski agrees to help Lale contact the girl he saw during processing.

After passing notes back and forth, Lale meets up with Gita, the woman he was so taken by. They speak briefly and agree to meet up again. One day, Lale meets Yuri and Victor, two contracted workers from town who are building a crematorium. Lale establishes a trade agreement with the father and son: he will trade jewelry and money that has been confiscated from prisoners in exchange for food and other necessities from the outside world. (The jewelry and money comes from the “Canada,” a storage facility where women prisoners work with Lale to smuggle goods out.) When Gita gets sick, Lale is able to acquire penicillin for her through Yuri and Victor. As she gets better, Lale secures her a job working in the administration building, where her quality of life in the camp is improved.

A transport of Romany Gypsies arrive at the camp, and Lale befriends them. Cilka, a beautiful girl who works in the administration office with Gita, is singled out by Schwarzhuber, the head of the Birkenau camp. He forces Cilka into sexual subservience, and she knows it would cost her her life to resist him. One day during tattooing,...

(This entire section contains 1224 words.)

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Lale encounters Dr. Mengele, who greatly disturbs him. Dr. Mengele selects transports on whom to perform experiments. He takes Leon away, and later Leon returns to the camp, having had his testicles cut off by the doctor.

Baretski asks Lale to assemble a team of prisoners for a “friendly” soccer game against the SS. The prisoners are eager to beat the Nazis, but Lale urges them to throw the game. The prisoners lose, and after the game Lale and Gita are able to spend time together. As they part, she calls him “my love” for the first time. A few days later, Gita learns from a neighbor from her hometown that her family is gone.

One day Baretski brings Lale to one of the crematoria to identify the tattoo on a body; it is a horrifying experience for Lale. Afterwards, he finds Gita. They make love for the first time, and Lale promises her that they will leave the camp alive and get married.

Two young Polish boys ask Lale to help their friend escape the camp because he was sentenced to death for trying to run away. Lale successfully sneaks the boy onto a transport leaving Auschwitz. The next few months of 1944 are brutal, and many people in the camp die. Baretski reveals that he knows Lale is running a trade chain into the camp. Barestski asks Lale to get stockings for his girlfriend in exchange for his silence. Lale’s treasure is eventually discovered, however. When he refuses to give up the names of the women working in the Canada, he is sent to the torture block, and he fears he will be killed. Lale’s torturer is a man he befriended during processing. This man, Jakub, helps Lale escape torture. Lale is sent to a harsh work camp, and Cilka is able to request that Schwarzhuber have him moved back to his previous job as tattooist.

Life goes on in the camp. One night all the Romany are taken away to be killed, which greatly upsets Lale. There are signs of resistance at Auschwitz, too: the Sonderkommando, the Jewish workers who run the crematoria, blow up one of the facilities. Lale has heard rumors of an uprising and also that the Russian army might be coming. When the Russians arrive to liberate the camp, Lale and Gita are separated: Gita is sent on a death march towards Poland, and Lale gets placed on a train to another camp.

Gita is forced to part with her best friend, Dana, who is left to die on the march. Gita finds refuge in a Polish town and eventually makes her way back to Slovakia, where she is reunited with her brothers, who have joined the Russian resistance. She remains in Bratislava. Meanwhile, Lale moves from one camp to another and finally escapes. He is picked up by the side of the road by Russian soldiers who want his help communicating with local women. Weeks later, when he is left unattended, Lale runs away. He takes a train back to Slovakia, determined to return to his family and to find Gita.

Lale returns to his old neighborhood in Krompachy to find that his sister is still there. She does not know what has become of the rest of the family. At his sister’s urging, Lale travels to Bratislava to find Gita. He spots her on the street and, then and there, asks her to marry him. Soon after, the two get married. After traveling around Europe—both for pleasure and to avoid the authorities in Soviet-controlled Slovakia—they settle down in Australia and have a son together. Lale works in the textile industry, and the couple has a long and happy marriage.

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