I will try my best for this review to do justice to this beautiful story of courage, hope and the power of love to endure all things, but I just don’t think I’m a good enough writer to express how much this book has touched me.
My sister has always wondered why I’m so morbidly fascinated with everything related to the Holocaust. She looked at me with horror when I suggested we watch Schindler’s List for Christmas morning last year (okay, that may have been too depressing a choice for what’s supposed to be a joyous occasion) or when I spent the entire holiday reading The Final Solution by David Cesarani the year before that.
For me it all started with a visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. I was well-versed with the history of the holocaust and the events of World War II of course, but in an almost detached kind of way. Like it was something I knew had happened but it never really touched me in a personal way – until I arrived at 263 Prinsengracht. While there, I was compelled to read the diary of a young girl and was able to see those events through her eyes and that, THAT made it personal.
You see, at 14 I was in high school; I did well academically, I had a huge circle of friends, a family who loved me and the exhilarating knowledge that life was only just beginning for me; I had dreams, and I knew I could go anywhere and be whoever I want to be if I only work hard enough for it. The world was my oyster. At 14, Anne Frank was desperately trying to survive, hidden in the secret annexe and praying to God that she will live to see another day.
I’ve visited a lot of memorials, have read a lot of book related to the holocaust – both fiction and non-fiction – and its always the accounts of the ordinary people who lived through that nightmare that always struck me to the core. This book is one of those accounts; it tells the extraordinary story of Lale Sokolov, who worked as the tattooist for Auschwitz during the war. He marked men and women, young and old alike, and inadvertently helped to decide their inevitable fate.
Lale made a promise to himself upon entering Auschwitz that he would survive the dreaded death camp; not only that, but he will bloody well live his life to the fullest even amidst such horror. But even he faltered at times when faced with the utterly senseless waste of life that he saw during his three years of imprisonment. He also could not help but feel like a Nazi collaborator because of what he allowed himself to do in order to survive. For Lale had friends and contacts in higher places, and he used a combination of charm, wiles, cunning and sometimes just plain dumb luck to cheat death over and over again.
Of course Lale had a very strong motive for wanting to stay alive: during his time in Auschwitz he fell in love with a young woman from Block 29 named Gita. Now I am usually not a fan of insta-love, but under those circumstances it was not only understandable but somehow appropriate that two people would grab at the chance for love where they can. I challenge any world-weary cynic who has stopped believing in the power of love to read this and not believe in love again.
This book is incredibly uplifting. Apart from the obvious love story, its mainly a story of hope. One of Lale’s favourite things to say was that “If you wake up in the morning, its a good day”. He, and Gita along with him, got through those horrible years by always putting one foot in front of the other (literally and figuratively) and by always believing that there will come a time when they will be free to be together, “to make love whenever and wherever they want”. Simple freedoms that we take for granted during our everyday lives.
This book also about the startling glimpses of human kindness in a place where you don’t expect kindness to exist anymore. I think its meant to tell you that there is hope for mankind if one prisoner can still manage to willingly share his meagre extra rations so that his block mates can also have a tiny piece of sausage or chocolate.
I won’t deny that this book had me in tears for most of it. Its the little things that got me: how earlier in the book, Lale’s mum – not knowing where he was headed and if they’ll ever see each other again – packed her favourite books in his suitcase instead of clothes so that they’d give him comfort when she no longer can; its how prisoners mourned the loss of suitcase and personal belongings as soon as they entered the camp, not for any materialistic reason, but because of the memories those belongings held, the sentimental value of some of the items, and perhaps because they know that that loss is a metaphor for what they will soon lose: their identities, their individuality, heck, their very humanity will soon be taken from them as they become just another number in Auschwitz.
Through it all Heather Morris wrote with such simplicity so as not to take away anything from the story that she was writing. Her words were clear, plain and straightforward. The narrative flowed and was easy to follow. It delivered on so many levels, and was such a page-turner that I finished this book within a day.
I still struggle to understand how anyone could have allowed murder and carnage on such a large scale to happen on their watch. I still can’t find any discernible reason for that huge wave of anti-semitism and for why a single group was targeted for genocide. I expressed all that and more when I reviewed The Final Solution on my Goodreads account, and I still stand by everything that I said. We should never forget the events of the holocaust. It makes me wonder how many more lives have to be lost and how many more wars need to be fought before we understand that – even though we’re divided by race, religion and culture – we are all simply human beings. As naive as it sounds, why can’t we just live and let live?
These men and women, these survivors, they weren’t at the battle front. They didn’t help to win the war, I don’t think they fired a single gun shot nor did they contribute to any strategic sessions; all they did was live each day hoping that they will still live to see the next. To me, that makes them heroes. Thank you Lale Sokolov, for sharing your incredible story with the world. I hope you’re happy and at peace with your Gita, I could not think of two people who deserve it more.
Overall: 5 stars. You can get a good deal for this book on Amazon when you click on the image below.
Happy Sunday everyone! xx