THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ – Did it really happen?

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” was written and published in 2018. It immediately gained popularity among readers across the world and unbelievably quickly became a bestseller. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ    

Heather Morris is a New Zealand writer who currently lives in Australia. She spent several years working at a hospital in Melbourne, where she met an elderly man with a “story worth telling”. As she admitted herself, that day changed the lives of both of them…

WHAT IS THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ ABOUT?

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is a story of a young Slovakian Jew named Lale Sokolov who was sent to AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU, a German Nazi concentration and extermination camp, in 1942; there, he worked as the camp tattooist and fell in love with a Slovakian Jewish girl named Gita Furman. Although the lovers got separated at the end of the war as Lale was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp and Gita left Auschwitz during the so-called death march, they found each other, got married and spent the rest of their lives together.

As such, the book depicts not only the nightmarish wartime reality and inhumane day-to-day life at a concentration camp but also describes a love story that survived despite the enormous difficulties.

For many years, that history was known only to the closest family of Lale and Gita. Lale was simply afraid to discuss his past so as not to be accused of collaborating with the Germans. Only after the death of his beloved Gita in 2003, when he first met the writer Heather Morris, did Lale decide to tell Heather about everything that had happened during the war.

Lake Sokolov with Gita and their son Gary

MINOR AND SIGNIFICANT MISTAKES IN THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ  

As “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” has become very popular and is still read by many readers all over the world, questions have quickly emerged as to the authenticity of the events it portrays. The author ensured that “every reasonable attempt to verify the facts against available documentation has been made” and stressed that the book is based on a true story. 

However, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum expressed a completely different opinion, claiming that “the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements”. Moreover, researchers and representatives of the museum are concerned that people may begin to interpret the fate of concentration camp prisoners through the lens of the book, considering it a valid, substantive source of knowledge.

Memoria”, the Auschwitz Museum’s magazine, pointed out numerous mistakes contained in the book, ranging from minor to significant ones. Below is a list of such mistakes, which were also indicated by Wanda Witek-Malicka, a “Memoria” author.

  • Routes presented in the book as ones used to transport prisoners to Auschwitz are incorrect and inconsistent with existing documents; the numbers assigned to prisoners do not match either, as the ones indicated in the book were too large considering the date on which the newcomers were sent to the camp.
  • Unlike in the book, tattooing new arrivals was not a task assigned to just one or two people, nor was it a permanent job that a prisoner could have.
  • The scene describing Dr Josef Mengele sterilizing a man is contrary to historical truth as well, as Mengele experimented on twins and people with dwarfism.  
  • The rebellion of the Sonderkommando prisoners was also different since only one crematorium, not two, was destroyed by the prisoners, and even then, this destruction was only partial. This also applies to claims about female prisoners carrying gunpowder under their fingernails, which Wanda Witek-Malicka described as “[…]ridiculous”.

These are just some of the many mistakes contained in the book. Their extent prompted the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to issue the following opinion about it:

“The novel is an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”.

To find the full Memoria article about “The Tattooist of Auschwitz”, please visit: memoria-en-no-14-11-2018

Cilka’s Journey – a controversial sequel to “The Tattooist of Auschwitz”

Notably, 2019 saw the release of a sequel to “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” called “Cilka’s Journey” which was also written by Heather Morris. It is a story about a sixteen-year-old girl named Cilka who was first sent to Auschwitz and then to a Soviet labor camp. Throughout this ordeal, she used her beauty as a way to survive. Cilka Klein had already appeared in the “Tattooist of Auschwitz”, in which it was claimed that she was engaged in a relationship with an SS officer, something that the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum believes to be yet another falsehood. Cilka’s family deems the book slanderous, with the allegations of her relationships with Auschwitz and gulag guards being the most hurting. Cilka’s adoptive son went as far as to threaten legal action against Heather:

“The time has now come for this to be settled in court. It’s going to cost me a lot of money but it will be worth it. I’m determined to clear Cecilia’s name. She was a wonderful person, one of life’s great survivors and it makes me livid that she has been defamed in this way”, he told Mail Online.

Cecilia Klein with her husband in 50’s / private archive

CONCLUSION – IS THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ WORTH READING?: 

Although we have found “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” to be an interesting read, written using simple yet moving language, we must remember that it is by no means a documentary, despite being based on a true story. This shows us, the readers, just how careful we have to be whenever picking up a book on such historically difficult subjects, and that we must always check whether their events are true to the historical facts. 

Nonetheless, if “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” has convinced you to read more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust and expanded your knowledge in this regard, we believe it was worth reading. We also encourage you to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum to hear even more touching, shocking stories and facts told by the tour guides.

Thank you for reading!