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Isolation Online Bookclub – The Tattooist of Auschwitz ft Stacey

Hellooo! So unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be aware of the current world situation. Meaning the Covid-19 outbreak. Well here in the UK we are currently in a lockdown for at least 3 weeks to try and slow down the spread of the virus. During this time me and by best friend decided that we weren’t okay with seeing each other for that amount of time so we resorted to FaceTime. Both being fans of reading we were talking about books and what we could be reading during this quarantine when we thought why not just make a book club? So we did. We’ve chosen a couple of books we either already owned or could get on respective e-readers so we weren’t breaking lock down procedures, read them at the same time and are going to discuss them via our FaceTime calls. Stace also thought it’d be cool to post a little summary on my site, so here we are! The first book, Stace chose which was the Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, which I had already got from my Christmas haul and she could get for very cheap on the kindle store. 

Here’s the Synopsis for context of what the book is about…

In 1942, Lale Sokolov arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was given the job of tattooing prisoners marked for survival – scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. 

Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale, a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer – it was love at first sight. And he was determined not only to survive himself, but to ensure this woman, Gita, did too. 

So begins one of the most life-affirming, courageous, unforgettable and human stories of the Holocaust: the love story of the Tattooist of Auschwitz. 

Rather than a standard review there were some reading group discussion questions in the back of the book which we decided we would answer individually for our discussions. 

How did you feel about Lale when he was first introduced, as he arrived in Auschwitz? How did your understanding of him change throughout the novel?

Claire: I was quite shocked with Lale’s reaction to being on the truck being taken away from his family. I remember when he smells and see the flowers in the fields they are driving through the gap in the side of the truck, how he thinks of how he would love to pick the flowers and give them to his mum and a sister. Also how he was so calm and reassuring to the other men in the truck that were panicking. His character really came through as being a calm and collected person, and the fact he was in such a scary and uncertain situation bewildered me. Throughout the book I started to understand Lale as really just trying to be good. He was always making the effort to feed others but his main thought for survival was himself. He wanted to stay alive and get out, which later extended to Gita. Which is understandable to put your survival first but even though that was his main intent he still didn’t stop caring for others too.

Stacey: I found Lale to be a bit of a ladies man, when he was talking about his love of all women and possibly a bit of a player. I found it a strange way for a man to speak, you don’t tend to hear men speak about women like that, I suppose. Throughout the book as we learned more about him I saw Lale as a kind person and his love for Gita was all encompassing. I respected how he tried to feed those around him and trying to keep them alive. 

What qualities did Lale have that influenced the way he was treated in the camp? Where did those qualities come from?

Claire: Lale knew how to talk to people. I think he really used this to his advantage when speaking to guards and camp inmates to get into the position that he had with the job of Tattooist and also getting food from Victor and Yuri and the understanding he had between himself and Baretski. He obviously developed this earlier in his life which we see when he remembers his days of being a salesman, selling perfumes in a department store. I think without his ability to be good with people his situation in the camp may have differed as to how it actually panned out.

Stacey: I think Lale knew how to get what he wanted out of people. He came from a good background working in a department store and he knew how to speak to people and knew he had to work for things. Nothing comes free. He was very quick thinking and a realist. He knew how to survive, having a strong fight for survival, he found reasons to go on and really held onto them. It also seemed at parts like he kept himself in a bit of a dream state focusing on things that he remembered like his family and flowers and better times, and that probably helped him keep somewhat upbeat given the situation he was stuck in.  

Survival in the camp depended on people doing deeds of questionable morality. Lale became the Tattooist, but how did Gita’s choices affect her survival? What about her friend, who befriended a Nazi?

Claire: Gita never really went out of her way to do anything dangerous on her own. She was always working with Lale. I think her acceptance of the relationship with Lale and her taking that risk to see him affected her survival greatly. Without it she wouldn’t have as much food, she may not have recovered from Typhus and she wouldn’t be working where the is heating in the administration building. So in taking that risk to find out where the relationship with Lale could lead despite them risking being punished by the SS ended up being a big part of her survival. I’m assuming the friend is Cilka, and to be honest I don’t believe she had much of a choice on be-friending the Nazi, if she had refused the relations with him he would most likely would have had her killed and it was very brave to go through that for how long she did so someone else wouldn’t have to. 

Stacey: I think Gita’s actions affected her survival mainly due to her relationship with Lale. It was obviously massively dangerous to initiate that relationship but without it, she wouldn’t have had certain benefits. For example, the medicine for Typhus, the job in the admin building and also Lale bribed her Kapo which will in some aspects her life a little bit easier in the camp. She was also quite down trodden at the beginning of the relationship, when Lale asked where she was from, she claimed to have no past or future she was just a prisoner, a number. Lale gave her a reason to plan for a future outside of the camp. One where they were not imprisoned. Their relationship made her fight a little bit harder and it gave her hope. 

Inmates in the concentration camp had to make life-or-death decisions everyday. Why did some make the ‘right’ decisions and survive, while others did not?

Claire: I think a lot of it came down to observation. Lale observed his surroundings quite early on to try and understand what went on and why the differences were there. Whereas in such a traumatic experience like that not everyones first thought is to examine and analyse. People react to fear and danger in very different ways and at the end of the day it wasn’t their choices that got them killed but the heinous acts of others that did.

Stacey: I think it’s mostly down to individuals characters. They all want to survive, but some aren’t as good at thinking tactically as some of the others are. They will do something that could have been avoided and the SS would punish them for it, some may not have been as good at just keeping their heads down and their eyes open. Lale and Jakub for example used their skills to their advantage to get slightly better jobs that kept them that little bit safer. We don’t really know what happened to Pepan, he could have just died but what if he made a wrong step and he was punished? But it’s hard to say, because the guards were unpredictable and their actions truly horrific. You could have looked at an SS wrong or just said or not said what they wanted to hear and they would’ve have killed you to make an example. In some cases they killed just because they were bored. So I Suppose there is also a small element of pure luck. 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz makes clear that there was also non-Jewish prisoners in the camp. How did the treatment of Jews differ from non-Jews? How did different treatments manifest themselves?

Claire: Every person was treated badly but I think Jewish were looked down on more due to the mass volume of them that were taken into the camp overtime in comparison to those there as political prisoners or gypsies or criminals etc. Towards the end where thousand of Jews were being brought in from Hungary and other places they were on the majority just taken and killed straight away. A lot of them weren’t kept with their families but the Romani’s that were sharing the block with Lale, from what I could gather were still together as a family. They were the main differences that I noticed, and also in the camp that Lale is taken to at the end, they wouldn’t allow Jews and they had blankets, even if only. thin and they weren’t made to work as laboriously as they were in Auschwitz. Whether this was down to the liberation of the camps or if it was always like this obviously we don’t know. 

Stacey: I was surprised to know there were more people in the camps other than Jews and political prisoners. It was something new that I’d learned. It did seem that the Jewish prisoners were treated that bit harsher in comparison to others in some respects. A lot of the Jewish prisoners were killed upon arrival during the later stages of the camp. The Romani’s that shared Lale’s block seemed to mostly be left alone around the block where others were working for example. Whether they did have to build during the day or not I cannot be sure but it wasn’t really mentioned. But they seemed to be less of a worry to the SS. 

Had Gita and Lale met in a more conventional way, would they have developed the same kind of relationship? How did their circumstances change the course of their romance?

Claire: I still believe they would’ve ended up together but I’d think that they probably wouldn’t have had such an intense relationship. I think they fell hard and quick due to their circumstances. They obviously cared for each other and they were all they had so all of their hopes and their brief snatches of happiness came from their time together. It’s hard to say if that would’ve been the same if they met in a store at home for example, where they had all the time in the world to get to know each other and only normal relationship pressures on them. 

Stacey: I really don’t think that they would have had the same relationship they had if they would have met under different circumstances. It was more intense because of the danger and the worry of tomorrow they could be gone. The need to survive really brought them together very quickly, and they probably wouldn’t have formed that bond in a normal day-to-day circumstance. They saved each others lives in giving the other a need to survive, and giving each other hope for the future. It isn’t a bond that is easily formed in normal situations. 

In what ways were the relationships between Gita and her friends different from the usual friendships between teenage girls? In what ways were they similar?

Claire: I think due to the circumstances that they met in and the things that they experienced on a daily basis they had to grow up very quickly. Most teenage friendships don’t have to support each other through death and abuse every single day. I forgot a lot reading the book that these girls would only be young girls and not adults, they come across in the story as much older but they would’ve had to have become responsible adults to have any chance of survival. There were still aspects of teenage-like behaviour from the girls during the book, like how Gita’s friends giggled and chatted about Lale when he first showed interest and trying to court Gita. I think every group of girl friends have that moment when one of them meets a new, cute guy. 

Stacey: They were like adults, but they had to be. Given their conditions it wasn’t a situation where they could be immature and teenager-like if they wanted to survive. The things that they went through together aren’t the normal. You don’t know how to cope with that just imagining it. It is really shocking and it will have made them older than their years. But just like most teenagers they still bonded over Lale and Gita falling in love, giggling over the attention. It was nice that they still had these innocent moments in such a horrible place. 

In what ways was Lale a hero? In what ways was he an ordinary man?

Claire: I think what stood out for me when it comes to Lale being heroic wasn’t any big act but the accumulation of nice things he did throughout his time in the camp. Like getting Leon a job as his apprentice, then sharing his rations of extra/smuggled food because he knew he’d miss dinner to work with him and he’d be offered nothing else any way. The way he always wanted to protect Gita and her friends from things that happened in the camp. For example, how he got Gita the job in the warmth after her suffering from Typhus,  how he was so concerned when he noticed Cilka was not herself. He rarely stopped showing kindness to others during a time that was highly traumatic. In other ways that he was an ordinary person was how he lost his faith during that time, how he made choices like becoming the Tattooist because he knew it’d give him better chances of surviving even though people may judge him harshly for doing so. He was an ordinary man who showed extraordinary kindness.

Stacey: Starting with how he was ordinary his main worry was surviving himself. He promised himself that he’d survive no matter what at the start, later this extended to Gita too, because he loved her and wanted her with him. This need to protect himself first and foremost is normal human behaviour. What made him heroic was his acts of support and kindness to others in the camp that he didn’t have to do. How he’d share his extra rations with his friends so they had enough to eat. As well as he gave advice to inmates like Jakub to help them survive. He didn’t have to do these acts of kindness to help other people but he did anyway and that could’ve been the difference between them making it out alive and not. 

So that is our little discussion of our first book club book. It was a fun experience and we really enjoyed it and it made a few days of lock down a bit easier for us! Even though this isn’t a review we both would say we’d rate this book 4.5/5. It was a very well written book, very sensitive to the issue its covering and it taught us a lot. We were so happy that Lale and Gita got their happy ending, many happy years together and a son. We’d definitely recommend. Thank you for reading, take care and remember guys, stay inside and stay safe. Let’s stop the spread of this virus so we can get ourselves back to normal. 

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