I meant to read this one very long ago, but for reasons that I no longer remember, I only got to read it this year, and I was mistaking it as a work of fiction! Stupid me! So I was reading it totally oblivious that this is a true story! So guys, I know that you know already, but let me just say this. There’s a real story behind this book.
This is a story about Lale Eisenberg, a charming and optimistic young Slovakian Jew who was hoping to find a good job with his skill in languages, when he found himself loaded on a cattle train heading to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a concentration camp operated by the Germans during the second world war to imprison Jews along with their war prisoners.
In Auschwitz, Lale’s language skill ironically purchased him a spot as a Tätowierer. A position with a duty to needle numbers onto his guiltless prisoner folks’ arms, without so much as looking at their faces. Came also with the duty was the privileges of better protection, freedom, and food, if only to some degree. It agonized Lale enough to have to help the Germans afflict his own people to survive, thus he used his advantages to help others to survive, hence also help himself to stay sane.
Among the chain of those arriving prisoners that Lale tattooed, he met Gita, a very young girl that she’s almost a child with a completely shaven head. Slowly and secretively, Lale and Gita found their love under the impossible circumstances, giving hope of a future to each other, and making somewhat a life for each other in the dreadful camp.
Three years later, at the end of the war, Lale and Gita got their paths separated when the Germans were trying to cover up their tracks on Jews imprisonment. They had no way of knowing each other’s fate, and the only thing that they could hang onto was faith in life. Lale and Gita had proven again and again, that even at gunpoint, you’d always own the last shred of control over your life to take, and there’d always be a chance to bet on. And that’s what they did and took. This is their story of how they, and their love survived the Nazi.
As I’ve mentioned, I was mistaking this book as a work of fiction at first. But as it turned out, there’s some harsh criticism on how inaccurate the historical details involved in this “based on true story” book. You can read some of the critiques here. The historical errors in the novel run from the wrong tattoo number to the impossibility of having penicillin in those years to misinformation of what Mengele’s evilness covers. At the end of the day, for all the inaccuracies, the camp experts eventually concluded this book as “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”
And by the way! The mistake that I was most surprised by, was that Morris, apparently had wrongly typed the name of ‘Lali’ as ‘Lale’. But let’s not drag on that. Because I’m not sure if all of those inaccuracies actually defile the heart of the message anyway.
As a novel, this one was an easy-read, a heart-rending love story told with a background of one of the worst event in the human history. The book itself is written focusing on the sentiments that it needs to deliver. Rather than being generous with thrilling events, it’s full of feelings and nuances. Which is perfectly conveyed through Lale. For he is this sensitive man who constantly feels up his surroundings, gives feelings to everything he does especially towards women, and takes full advantage of his senses and instincts going through what he went through. All the way through, it was always more about the love than the history.
At some places, the storytelling gives not enough picture of other characters and events taking place in the painting. I now and then felt half-blindfolded reading it from Lale’s sole perspective. But in hindsight, I think it all makes sense. It was a concentration camp, and Lale was one of the prisoners. Even with his privileges, he was not supposed to know things too well, and was never leisure enough to befriend people whenever he wanted to. Thus any obscurity is probably designed to communicate the sensation of not knowing as an inmate.
This love story of Lale and Gita’s, at its very core, invites us to reflect on many things in our own lives.
And that’s probably why the best part of the book to me, was the epilogue. I was much more interested in how they got on after the ordeal. At the end of the book, their son, Gary Sokolov (Lale later changed his last name to Sokolov), recounted a bit how their parents built their lives from scratch, their lengthy attempt at having kids, and the loving atmosphere that their family lived in.
And that’s what touched me the most. I figured that there’s actually nothing particular in how Lale and Gita found their infatuation with each other, or how they grew their relationship. Basic stuff really, conversation, hug, kiss, sex. But what happened after the camp to them amazed me deeply. As Gary divulged in his few words, his parents still had to face many other hardships outside the war. Lale was captured once again under the Communist law, he had to deal with financial failures one too many times, and they as a family even had to move out of Poland and settle in Melbourne for safety reason. Even then, problems in their life resisted to cease. But, watch and learn, people! Lale and Gita never lost their spirit. They didn’t give up. When they fell, they got back up again. And they went through all that, happily. And with love.
When my father was forced to close his business when I was sixteen, I came home from school just as our car was being towed away and an auction sign going up outside our home. Inside, my mum was packing up all our belongings. She was singing. Wow, I thought to myself, they have just lost everything and Mum is singing? She sat me down to tell me what was going on and I asked her, “How can you just pack and sing?”
With a big smile on her face she said that when you spend years not knowing if in five minutes’ time you will be dead, there is not much that you can’t deal with. She said, “As long as we are alive and healthy, everything will work out for the best.”Afterword by Gary Sokolov, p. 245
To survive that level of atrocity, and got out emotionally functioning is one thing. To still be able to spread love? Now, that’s just inspiring.
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