Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the story of how Slovakian Jew Lali Sokolov fell in love with a girl he was tattooing at the concentration camp, has been one of the year’s bestselling novels. Its cover proclaims that it is “based on the powerful true story of love and survival”; inside, its publisher notes that “every reasonable attempt to verify the facts against available documentation has been made”. But a detailed broadside from the Auschwitz Memorial has disputed this, claiming that “the book contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements”.
The report from Wanda Witek-Malicka of the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre lays out concerns that the book’s claims of factual authenticity will lead readers to treat it as “a source of knowledge and imagination about the reality of life” in the camp.
Morris has previously spoken of how Sokolov began to tell her his story at the age of 87, after the death of his wife Gita Furman. She initially wrote his story as a screenplay, then launched a Kickstarter to raise funds to self-publish it as a book, before finding a publisher. The novel has gone on to top charts around the world, with almost 400,000 copies sold in the UK alone.
“Ninety-five per cent of it is as it happened; researched and confirmed,” Morris told the Guardian earlier this year. “What has been fictionalised is where I’ve put Lale and Gita into events where really they weren’t. They weren’t together when the American planes flew over the camps, for example. Lale was on his own at that point. I put him and Gita together for dramatic licence.”
At the back of the book, Morris thanks two researchers for “their brilliant investigative skills in researching ‘facts’ to ensure history and memory waltzed perfectly in step”.
But according to the Auschwitz Memorial’s magazine, Memoria, numerous historical details of the camp are wrong. Witek-Malicka’s fact-checking, which runs to more than seven pages, takes issue with a range of storylines, from the route taken to the camp (“the transport could not have travelled through Ostrava and Pszczyna … [Morris] probably used the modern online search engine of railway connections”), to Morris’s account of the murder of prisoners in a bus being used as a gas chamber, which “does not find confirmation in any sources”.
Paweł Sawicki, editor-in-chief of Memoria, said it was first prompted to look into the novel when it was asked to double-check the camp number of Gisela Fuhrmannova, Sokolov’s wife, who also went by the name Gita Furman.
“We were really surprised to find out that the number given in the book is not correct. It is a very basic but a crucial detail in the story,” Sawicki told the Guardian. “We have also had some information from our guides that visitors have been asking about the history of the tattooist. Some even received this book as a thank-you gift … So we become interested in the story itself and the further we got into the details, the more surprised we were to discover how [many] historical mistakes – small and big – about the reality of Auschwitz were there.”
Because the book is presented as “based on a true story”, and most readers “do not have enough knowledge to distinguish facts and fictions here”, the Memorial decided to lay out the history behind the novel.
Witek-Malicka said that it would have been impossible for Sokolov to get penicillin for Furman, who was infected with typhus, in January 1943: “This antibiotic became widely accessible only after the war.” She also disputed a scene where Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele is shown sterilising a man: “Dr Mengele did not conduct sterilisation experiments on men, but performed experiments on twins and dwarves.”
While Morris’s novel says two crematoriums were blown up during a revolt by Sonderkommando prisoners, Witek-Malicka says only one was partially burned down, adding that a scene where female prisoners deliver gunpowder to the prisoners by carrying it under their fingernails had no historical basis.
A major point of concern raised in the report “is the sexual relationship described in the book between the head of the camp SS-Obersturmführer Johann Schwarzhuber and the Jewish female prisoner Cilka”. In practice, the report says, “the possibility of maintaining such a long relationship … and according to the book, a semi-explicit relationship between a Jewish female prisoner and a high-ranking member of the SS hierarchy was non-existent”.
The Auschwitz Memorial is not the first to flag concerns about the novel. An article in the New York Times in November pointed out that the number that Morris says was tattooed on Furman was 34902, but that Furman herself testified that her number was 4562. Blogger Lisa Hill highlighted the penicillin error in June. Sokolov’s son Gary told the New York Times that it bothered him his father’s name had been misspelled “Lale”, rather than “Lali” in the novel.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum concluded that the novel is “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”.
“The nature of human memory, especially where the events recalled occurred over 70 years ago, requires confrontation with other sources. From today’s perspective, we can only regret that no specialist in the area of camp matters was invited to work on the book,” the report ends. “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.”
When approached by the Guardian, Morris declined further comment. She told the Australian, which first covered the report: “I have written a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust. I have written Lale’s story.” In November, she told the New York Times: “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.”
A spokesperson for her publisher told the Guardian on Friday: “The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a novel based on the personal recollections and experiences of one man. It is not, and has never claimed to be, an official history. If it inspires people to engage with the terrible events of the Holocaust more deeply, then it will have achieved everything that Lale himself wished for.”
But Sawicki took issue with Morris’s response. “Can ‘a story’ be told without paying attention to the reality of the story? If this would be a complete fictional story, we could say that the author does not know much about the history of Auschwitz. This book, however, tells a story of a real person, his real tragic experiences, and this puts much more responsibility on a person who tells this story to the world,” he said. “The number of different errors in the book – not only in simple basic facts but also in the depiction of the reality of Auschwitz – can sometimes create more confusion than understanding. It turns a real story into an interpretation – very moving and emotional – that however blurs the authenticity of this true experience. We believe that the survivor’s story deserved better.”
Source: The Guardian