Truth in Fiction: The Tattooist of Auschwitz & the Problem with Novels “Based on a True Story”

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I recently finished the novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. It was a Christmas gift from my wonderful sister-in-law who knows I love history. She actually tricked me into telling her I wanted it. I had seen the book on lists of books for history lovers, best seller sections of stores, and online from bookstagrammers I follow. I hadn’t looked much into it other than the basic premise and so I was intrigued and wanted to read it. It is the first book I’ve read in its entirety in a while (still suffering from on and off spells of post-grad school reading issues). It was a relatively quick read, a light, paperback love story in most ways. Except of course its setting–Auschwitz. Nazi-occupied Poland. World War II. The Holocaust.

Potentially an important book–a tale from the perspective of a Jewish prisoner, but not just any Jewish prisoner–one selected to work as the Tatowierer — the prisoner assigned to tattoo his fellow prisoners upon arrival. A prisoner, that because of this position, was given special treatment, better conditions relative to the other prisoners, and some small modicum of relative freedom.

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However, because of the way this book was written, it missed the opportunity to fully explore that viewpoint and what it could have told us about the Holocaust. Instead, the book focuses on the love story at hand. And it is an incredible, love-affirming, heartwarming story of how two people met under the worst of circumstances, survived, found each other again, and lived happily ever after. And that is an unbelievable love story. However, the tale of Lali Sokolov could have been that and so much more.

The book is a novel, but its cover attests that it is “Based on the Powerful True Story of Love and Survival.” Author Heather Morris spent the last 3 years of the real Lali Sokolov’s life listening to his story for the purposes of turning it into a screenplay. She later decided to rework the screenplay into her first novel.

As a historian, I think historical fiction can be a wonderful way to engage non professionals (and even professionals alike) with the past, encourage interest in history, and spark desire for more knowledge. However, when done without a certain level of accuracy, it can create myths, misunderstandings, and confusion with audiences who may not know which parts of the book are history and which are fiction, especially when the marketing for the novel attests that it is based on a true story. This declaration will make many believe more of the novel is indeed true than might be the case.

I am no Holocaust expert but I did study it in a semester long seminar and I found a few aspects of the novel to be unbelievable, literally. The amount of freedom of movement that Lali had in the camp seemed to me to be unrealistic and overstated. This feeling brought me to look into the accuracy of the novel and I found that the leading experts on Auschwitz, those at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, found the novel to be virtually useless as a text for understanding life at Auschwitz. Writing in the November 2018 edition of the site’s magazine Memoria, Wanda Witek-Malicka from the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center provided a number of examples of inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and blatant mistakes in the novel. Malicka’s conclusion was that “given the number of factual errors, therefore, this book cannot be recommended as a valuable title for persons who want to explore and understand the history of KL Auschwitz.”

You can read Malicka’s full fact-checking article here: https://view.joomag.com/memoria-en-no-14-11-2018/0766192001543510530/p6?short

Perhaps the most stunning mistake was the number tattooed on Gita’s arm. Such a pivotal moment and important symbol in the book, and a relatively easy fact to verify, and it was simply wrong. Lali’s name was misspelled throughout the novel as Lale. These small details may not impact the overall story, but if no care was taken to verify the small, easy details, how much was taken to accurately recreate Lali’s story?

Larger issues are also brought up in Malicka’s fact check including the extreme unlikeliness that prisoners had the freedom of movement within the camp that this novel purports. It was this inaccuracy that most concerned me as the novel at times made the concentration camp experience seem much less atrocious than most other sources make it out to be. The utter terror of what happened there is missing from this novel not only in the way facts are misrepresented but also in the style of writing. There is not enough description, build up to climactic or important moments, and little reflection on such moments. Most likely, this is because of the original intention of this story to manifest on screen where the impact of moments could be achieved through visual and auditory ways; however, even the dialogue of the novel is severely lacking.

I feel that Lali Sokolov’s life story would have been better served if written as non-fiction–a memoir, a biography, or similar, or even as a novel but with context given and verified with documentation by a historian. Not only would nonfiction have provided valuable context and better understanding of Lali’s unique situation, it also would have presented his story in a more dignified way. Morris’ work, while an interesting topic and readable, was not especially well-written. Dialogue falls flat; the plot feels disjointed. Important moments happen with no build up or examination. Character development lacks depth. And the plot itself seems improbable at times, leading me to wonder which aspects of the story are truth and which are fiction.

Morris writes in her acknowledgements a thank you to two persons “for their brilliant investigative skills in researching the “facts” to ensure history and memory waltzed perfectly in step.” However, that the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum was not consulted and the records they possess not sought to corroborate details makes me feel that the proper amount of effort needed in order to achieve Morris’ self stated goal of making history and memory waltz in step was not carried out.

Have you read The Tattooist of Auschwitz? What did you think? How much does accuracy matter in a novel set in a time period like the Holocaust?


I recommend reading the complete fact checking article from the Auschwitz Memorial and Research Center: https://view.joomag.com/memoria-en-no-14-11-2018/0766192001543510530/p6?short

You can also read summaries of the inaccuracies and the author’s response in various news articles such as here : https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/07/the-tattooist-of-auschwitz-attacked-as-inauthentic-by-camp-memorial-centre

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/veracity-of-tattooist-of-auschwitz-challenged-by-auschwitz-museum-in-poland/

If you are interested in reading more about the Holocaust, particularly about survivors, and wanting books that read more like novels and are more accessible than dense academic history texts I’ve recommended a few below.

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman – a graphic novel about a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story.

Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke – nonfiction about the revolt and escape of Jewish prisoners from the Nazi death camp at Sobibor.

Into the Tunnel: The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943 by Gotz Aly- “A generous feat of biographical sleuthing by an acclaimed historian rescues one child victim of the Holocaust from oblivion”

The Heart has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage by Mark Klempner – Collection of interviews with 10 Dutch rescuers of Jewish children

 

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