What I’m reading: Love in the shadow of the gas chambers


I had reservations about this. I still do. A love story in a Nazi death camp? I still question the ethical stand of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which made the fate of one German officer’s son an ironical counter-point to the systematic slaughter of six million victims of Adolf Hitler’s extermination programme.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who chanced into the job of tattooing the new arrivals, Jewish and Romany, at the twin Polish concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He falls in love with Gita, also from Slovakia, who escapes the gas chamber by getting clerical work documenting the deportees (the Nazi obsession with documentation makes the Holocaust even more chilling). Their love affair consists of snatched moments together and is overshadowed by the constant threat of illness or execution. The most beautiful girl in the camp becomes the plaything of the commandant. Some of the women processing new arrivals steal cash and jewellery which Lale smuggles to the local villages through bribed guards to be exchanged for extra food. 
‘Work will set you free.’ The great Nazi lie.
This is a harsh story, but it could have been harsher. Heather Morris gives us one glimpse of the gas chamber in operation and a few glimpses of the rain of ash from the crematorium chimneys, but she spares readers the most harrowing images we have seen in other accounts and TV documentaries. Josef Mengele appears (‘this man whose soul is colder than his scalpel,’ she calls him), but she gives barely a hint of his obscene medical experiments on prisoners. Yes, it’s all been detailed before, but I think we do the six million dead an injustice if we gloss over the full horrors of the Final Solution.
Morris writes in the present tense, as does Hilary Mantel. Past history in the present tense grates with me (the only time I enjoyed it was in John Updike’s Rabbit quartet, four of the greatest novels of my lifetime). But, for all my reservations, I can see why The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been so widely acclaimed. It has a surprise ending. And there is an irresistible charm to the notion that Love can blossom, can flourish, even on what in another memorable phrase the author calls ‘the threshold of Hell.’

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