The Tattooist of Auschwitz

by Heather Morris

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802

The phrase “Save one, save them all” recurs throughout The Tattooist of Auschwitz. For Lale, it is a rallying cry: if he can save the life of one person in the camp, he will have made all the difference under impossible circumstances. The phrase is repeated by Victor and Yuri when they share their lunch with Lale, initiating a relationship that saves many lives through the smuggling of goods into Auschwitz. It appears yet again when it is invoked by some of the more devout men in Lale’s block. “Save one, save them all” is paraphrased from a section of the Talmud, the primary text of Jewish religious law and philosophy. (“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire” is closer to the actual translation.) This idea—that in saving one life, a person can save the world—is at the ethical heart of the novel.

At Auschwitz as in all Nazi death camps, the SS maintains strict control over all life and death. Prisoners are weak, vulnerable, and largely unable to protect themselves as a group; ultimately it takes an entire army to liberate the camp. Because of this, Lale and other prisoners focus instead on doing right by one another in small—but often critical—ways. The Tattooist of Auschwitz reveals just how serious the ripple effects of one action can be. A small act of resistance can have long term consequences for the better.

The phrase “save one, save them all” operates by the logic of the synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part of a whole represents the whole. “Save one, save them all” lets the figure of the single person stand in for the whole world. Conversely, the phrase could also mean that the whole world is contained inside one person. With this understanding of personhood—as endlessly complex, worthy, and full of potential—Lale knows that he can do the greatest good for the world by looking after individual people in the camp. Even though Lale claims that his Judaism is “incidental” to his identity, he appears to be living this particular teaching through his actions. There is no way to “save them all” at Auschwitz as a prisoner, but in saving “one,” Lale acknowledges the individual importance of each person. He can make a world of change for the “one,” resisting the ultimate Nazi goal of extermination.

The power of this idea is evidenced in the beginning of the novel, with Pepan’s decision to save Lale’s life when he falls ill with typhus. Pepan, a French academic imprisoned at Auschwitz and working as the camp tattooist, sees Lale’s friend Aron trying to save a delirious Lale from the SS death carts. In fighting for Lale’s life, Aron sacrifices his own, and Pepan recognizes that he has the power to protect the life of another man so that Aron’s death might not be in vain. Pepan helps to nurse Lale back to health and offers him a job as an assistant tattooist, bringing Lale into the fold of protection that such a job brings. Lale asks Pepan why he chose him, and Pepan replies, “I saw a half-starved young man risk his life to save you. I figure you must be someone worth saving.” By choosing Lale, Pepan is able to “save one.” After Pepan disappears—presumably he is killed—Lale requests an assistant tattooist just as Pepan did for him. In doing so, he exercises what little power he has to protect another. Sometimes, these efforts are futile. Lale’s assistant Leon is eventually experimented on by Dr. Mengele and then killed. Despite this, Lale and others know there...

(This entire section contains 802 words.)

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is value in the attempt itself. Lale, Pepan, and many other prisoners fight for a better world by fighting for each other. By doing what they can for their fellow prisoners, Lale and the others recognize the humanity in each other that the Nazis seek to deny and destroy.

In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the prisoners’ struggle against the forces of Nazi genocide even when such struggle seems hopeless, and this is because they choose to take care of each other despite the direst of circumstances. Prisoners often risk their own lives to protect the lives of others, and these displays of humanity and compassion allow them to stay in touch with who they are and what they believe in as a people. When Gita seeks better working conditions for her elderly neighbor Mrs. Goldstein or when Lale helps a boy sentenced to hanging escape on a transport leaving Auschwitz, these characters are fighting forces larger than themselves. No one person can save the world, but every person can save another. To save one other person, the novel suggests, is to begin the work of saving the world.