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.
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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