BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Auschwitz by Miklos Nyiszli

Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness AccountAuschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Miklós Nyiszli

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Auschwitz is the account of a Jewish medical doctor who performed autopsies at the crematoria of Auschwitz at the behest of the infamous Dr. Mengele. It’s gut-wrenching reading. One is constantly reminded of the words of another famous Holocaust chronicler, Viktor Frankl, who said, “We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.” That’s a sad fact with which Dr. Nyiszli had to live. Nyiszli lent his expertise to many despicable acts in the process of surviving, and it’s to his credit that he had the courage to write this work. He was the only one who could have told much of this story, and it’s a story that he felt the world must know–even if it meant rehashing the nightmare scenario of his life during the holocaust years, even if he was not always to be seen at his most virtuous.

While Nyiszli was a man of science who tried to stick to the objective task of conducting autopsies, his results were routinely perverted to support Nazi pseudo-science—the pseudo-science used by Nazis to justify elimination of the Jews and other despised classes of humanity. Nyiszli stayed alive first-and-foremost because Dr. Mengele valued Nyiszli’s expertise, and perhaps the credibility that expertise offered to the Nazi’s insane attempts to emulate science.

Sometimes by just answering basic scientific questions, Nyiszli was contributing to the advancement of dire atrocities. There’s no better example than when Mengele asked Nyiszli how one could obtain a skeleton from a corpse. These skeletons displayed deformities, and were thus to be sent to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics to support the absurd assertion that Jews were genetically degrading. Of course, as Nyiszli points out the disease these two people were afflicted with was no less common among blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans than it was among the Jewish people. At any rate this resulted in two corpses (made corpses by force, not nature) being boiled to remove the skeletons so they could be sent to an institute as pseudo-evidence.

Nyiszli’s forthcomingness is astounding. Nyiszli performed many objectionable actions at the behest of Mengele, but it’s clear he couldn’t have survived disobeying the Nazi doctor. However, there were also times when Nyiszli acted on his own in a way that was, arguably, detestable. After Auschwitz was abandoned, Nyiszli used his former position–and Mengele name-dropping)-to cut in line to get into an encampment (essentially a refugee camp) so he could get a shower and food for the night when others were left out in the cold.

I don’t mean to make Nyiszli look evil. He did many virtuous things in the process of surviving as well. This included sneaking medical supplies from the crematoria infirmary (where there was abundance) to barracks infirmaries (where there was a dire shortage.) He did his best to save those he could. It’s to Nyiszli’s credit that he shows us a complete picture. One expects such a book to be distorted when it comes to the author, but Nyiszli’s book seems honest.

This is an important book as it lets us peer into one of the darkest hours of humanity, and gaze upon a terribleness that would have been lost to posterity. The book gives a chilling account of what it must have been like to be in the gas chambers, told by someone who saw the aftermath in person. Nyiszli saw the piles of bodies reaching to the ceiling—dog piles in which the weakest were trapped on the bottom as the strongest tried to climb over women and children to get a gulp of good air. (Another proof of Frankl’s thesis.) Nyiszli also describes how one little girl, in a freak occurrence, managed to survive the chambers owing to an air pocket, only to have the SS finish the execution by cruder means.

I think everybody should read this book, but I’ll offer a warning that it’s not for the faint of heart. One has to keep righteous rage in check to just get through the book. However, to ignore this wicked moment in history is to fail to see the traps humanity is capable of falling into through simple refusal to do the right thing or a willingness to try to feel better about oneself by casting aspersions on those with slightly different physical features.

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BOOK REVIEW: Night by Elie Wiesel

Night  (The Night Trilogy #1)Night by Elie Wiesel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, tells his story as a boy caught in the Holocaust. A Jew from Sighet in Transylvania, Wiesel was evacuated from the ghetto as a teenager and shipped off to Auschwitz–later to be moved to Buchenwald.

At little over 100 pages, this thin book is tragedy distilled and condensed.

A few of Wiesel’s experiences stick with one because they are just so gut wrenching. One such story is about a woman in the train car who hallucinates fire and flames. Her insanity no doubt spurred by hearing of the massive crematoria. Her delusions were prophetic for all too many of those packed in that cattle-car.

Another key moment came after their train rolled into Auschwitz. Both Elie Wiesel and his father followed advice to lie about their ages, he to make himself older and his father to become younger. This got them both directed to the left; the people who would live for the time being– though they didn’t know that at the time.

The climactic portion of the book deals with the boy’s attempts to cope with his father’s severe illness. On the one hand, his father was all he had. On the other hand, he feared that he would not survive if he had to keep looking after the ill elder. Wiesel is quite frank about the dilemma that clouded his mind. His father’s death would make his own survival more likely. The guilt caused by these thoughts tormented him. This kind of guilt is a prevailing theme in genocide literature. It reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s comment in Man’s Search for Meaning in which he says that the sad truth survivors must live with is that, “the best of us did not return.”

I will end my review by suggesting that you read this book. It’s quick and–while not painless–insightful. I’d intended to ramble on with some personal experiences and observations, but have decided to make that its own post entitled <em>The Bullets that Bore no Name: or, the Burden we all Bear</em>.

If you’re just here for the Night review, thanks for visiting and Godspeed in your journeys through cyberspace.

If you’re at all curious about what I have to say, grab your mint julep and join me on the veranda. The veranda is this way.

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