1 February 2019 Susannah

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Auschwitz Death Camp

I recently read and was moved by Heather Morris’s book The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It tells a remarkable story of a young Jewish man, Lale Eisenberg, from Slovakia who spent two and a half years in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and there had the job of tattooing numbers on the arms of new arrivals. The front of the book announces that it is “based on a true story” and the author includes an epilogue by Lale’s son and accounts of her interviews with Lale as he told her his incredible story. Just after finishing the book, I spotted a comment in The Sydney Morning Herald about the many doubts as to the book’s authenticity, so I did a google search to find out more. It seems there is currently quite a storm of controversy over the book.

Heather Morris claims that 95% of the story is true and confirmed. The trouble with such a statement is that the reader is immediately left wondering which 5% of the book is fiction. The Auschwitz Memorial Research centre has stated that the book has “numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements” – a fairly damning critique. Problems include the wrong tattooed number being given for Lale’s girlfriend Gita (he purportedly falls instantly in love with her as he tattoos the number into her flesh, an incident that had been invented for the book), the wrong route given for his train journey to the camp, the acquisition of penicillin for Gita when she has typhus (the antibiotic was only widely available after the war), the long-term sexual relationship between one Jewish woman and the SS officer in charge of the camp (the Auschwitz Centre describes the possibility of such a relationship as “non-existent”), and the partial burning of one crematorium is changed to the blowing up by gunpowder of two such buildings. Even the main character’s name is changed from Lali to Lale (which seems a pointless alteration). The Centre describes the book as “almost without any value as a document”. For more details see The Guardian (this is not the only site attacking the credibility of the book). There are now so many doubts about the book that plans for a film version are in limbo.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
by Heather Morris

I find this a fascinating subject. After reading the book and being moved by its love story and extraordinary tale of human survival, I felt badly cheated to discover that possibly much of what I’d read was not factually correct. If I’d picked it up as ‘a novel’, then I’d have been prepared for stories where fictional license had been taken, but the book was presented as a memoir and I therefore expected accuracy. Where does a bookshop or library shelve such a work – Fiction, Memoir, History? (I see that more recent editions of the book now have the words ‘a novel’ on the front cover, but the copy I bought was displayed in the Non-Fiction section of the shop.) Are the inaccuracies of the author a form of “spitting on the graves” of Holocaust victims, as one blogger has charged? The Australian claimed that the book “distorts reality” and every reader must now question their own response. How will sales of the book now be affected by the controversy? – it had been an international bestseller until the storm erupted. Does the truth of a story lie in the details, or in the larger picture? How accurate does an historical novel have to be? These are not easy questions to answer, but they all came into my mind and I’ve been pondering them since reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

Have you read this book? If so, how do you respond to the claims of inaccuracies and do they change your response to the book? Please leave a comment to let me know what you think.

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Featured image credit- Auschwitz Death Camp, https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=150633
Body image credit- The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, Goodreads,  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35523006-the-tattooist-of-auschwitz

Comments (16)

  1. caroline hewison

    I think the appalling writing of The Tattooist of Auschwitz is matched by the sheer unbelievability of the content. Somebody is laughing all the way to the bank here!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I see the book has now been branded as a ‘novel’ rather than as a true story, but the author has brought out a new book about one of the characters in the first, so she has not learned any lessons from all the criticism she has received.

  2. Yvette

    I didn’t love this book as much as I expected to. I felt it was not terribly well written. But I listened to the audio which was narrated by Richard Armitage so I persisted happily. But I didn’t expect it to be completely factual even though it was based on a true story. Maybe I would feel more upset about it if I had loved it though.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      There seems to be a huge range of reactions to this book. I found it a moving story, and then felt cheated when I knew it was not entirely factual, but I agree that if you didn’t love the book, then you probably didn’t care much one way or the other.

  3. Sally Evans

    I have always felt that when reading memoir it’s best to keep in mind that we as humans are unreliable narrators. When comparing facts in memoirs written quite soon after the war to those based on late in life interviews there will be huge differences. I think it sounds a lot like, as the fact checking suggests, Morris relied on modern information rather than historical ie the train line. But that things like the blowing up of the crematorium vs the fire could be an event that has changed in Eisenberg’s memory over time.
    I’m glad they have rebranded it as a novel, it is important that with so much denial out there we have clear distinctions about absolute fact (as absolute as that can be). I think the publisher should have had better researchers on the book to find these discrepancies early. They just saw the potential for sales and film rights so went forward too quickly. And I do feel for Morris, I don’t think there would be any malicious intent she just needed better guidance.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree – her publishers probably just pounced and didn’t check a thing. But they do tend to leave it all up to authors to check their own facts, or at least the source of their facts. Morris does say that she checked some of the things Lale told her and they were correct, but she obviously didn’t do enough. I did feel cheated when I knew she had major things wrong and that the Auschwitz Foundation had strongly complained about several things in the book.

  4. Julie

    This reminds me of the Helen Demidenko/Darville/Dale kerfuffle in 1993 regarding ‘The Hand That Signed The Paper’.

    From previous comments it seems we will read something poorly written as long as it is fact – however not with a novel. I often wonder how much influence the publishers have on how these books are promoted.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, definite similarities with the Demidenko kerfuffle. I agree that we are possibly more critical when it comes to novels.
      We missed you yesterday at JASA, Julie.

  5. sheila joss

    I haven’t read this book but to answer your question more generally, I think that a NOVEL with an historical background can make up the story but the background should be broadly factual and where the history is as recent as this, then any changes made for the sake for the sake of the story should not be glaring or offensive. If the book is presented as true then it should be completely factually accurate. If its “based on a true story” then while it might be acceptable to truncate, its not acceptable to add….on the other hand “based on true stories” to me, allows the writer to amalgamate the experiences of multiple real people into fewer characters. I do have a view about people making money from comparatively recent tragedy. I think its distasteful.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It’s a fine distinction, isn’t it. Is it really a novel if it is based on one man’s life and 90% of it is true? If it says ‘based on a true story’, then how much of it should we be able to assume is true? And to profit from a recent tragedy, how ‘recent’ does that event have to be? I find it interesting to think about these issues in terms of books and what authors and publishers can get away with, and what lines are drawn by the reading public. Thanks for your comments which made me think about it all even further.

  6. Melody

    I felt this way many years ago when I ploughed my way through a book about a young woman from a Middle Eastern country who escaped from her family when they threatened to kill her for falling in love with the wrong man. It was poorly written and the only reason I stuck with it was because it was being sold as a true story, and an insight into the laws of Islam. Later the American author was exposed as having invented the whole thing. I was so annoyed that I’d wasted my valuable reading time on something that I would have discarded as trash after the first page, if I’d known it was fiction! I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the name of the author and the book, but it was a very big story in the early 1990s. I imagine this book is much the same, so I won’t be adding it to my reading list.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is unfair marketing of books when they are presented as true, and then you find they are pure fiction. I agree that it is most irritating to waste good reading time on such books that leave you feeling cheated.

  7. Jenny Reeves

    I read the book and found it an uplifting and moving story of love and survival. Having taught Nazi Germany as part of the senior Modern History syllabus for many years I did think a number of things that happened seemed unlikely based on what I had learnt. However I think I accepted the assertion that it was “based” on a true story and flowed with what was an amazing and very different story about the Jewish experience in the concentration camps. Having read and heard about some incredible feats of survival such extraordinary stories are not impossible. I see the novel as fiction but also providing interesting insights and it challenges us to think about the decisions we must make to survive. I recommend the book.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree – it is a truly uplifting and remarkable story. However, had it been branded as a ‘novel’ when I bought it, I could then have coped with the news that quite a bit was not true. It was because it was presented as a memoir and I assumed it was all true that I felt cheated when I discovered it wasn’t. A lot of the problem was in the branding of it as ‘based on a true story’ and non-fiction, yet now the publishers seem to be re-branding it as fiction. I heard today that the author is bringing out a ‘sequel’, which is about Cilka, the woman who was made to sleep with the Nazi officer. I wonder if that will be sent into the world as a novel or a true story?

  8. Barbara M Royston

    I saw Heather Morris interviewed on British TV last year so bought her book out of curiosity. I found its literary standards poor and the content rather skewed, insulting to the man whose life’s story she supposedly was relating. I felt her intentions were to provide material for a TV series, Netflix etc. Disappointing overall.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Heather Morris seems to be rather in hiding at the moment, so she is obviously finding it hard to cope with the negative publicity. I found the style simplistic, but assumed that was the way Lale spoke and told his story. There were some things I found hard to believe as I was reading it – would those two prisoners really have had sex in the women’s quarters as described, when both were weak and emaciated? Would he really have thought only of where his girlfriend might be as he enjoyed his first decent meal in 5 years? I suspect she was very much writing with a Netflix series in mind, but will it now happen after the negative comments the book is now getting?

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