When 40-something Australian novelist and literary critic Bram Presser, after returning from a long overseas book tour for his prize-winning Holocaust novel ”The Book of Dirt’ got wind of the literary controversy brewing around fellow Australian writer Heather Morris’s semi-debunked debut novel, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” he felt it was time to add his two cents to the ongoing global conversation.
As readers of this blog series know, the controversial Holocaust sex-in-the-barracks chick-lit romance novel was naively published by a small Australian imprint of a major British publishing powerhouse. And with a savvy PR marketing strategy behind it, targeting female readers worldwide, the much-fabricated-in-key-scenes memoir has gone on to sell over a million copies in 35 countries.
In a recent online blog post for the Jewish Book Council in New York City, Presser, born in 1976 — more than 40 years after the end of World War Two — took a deep breath, counted from ten backwards and dished his uniquely Bram brand point of view.
He titled his deep dive essay “On the Future of the Holocaust Novel.” It will live on as a classic essay for as long as Holocaust Studies remain on the course syllabus at universities around the world. Maybe for another 100 years?
“In the not-too-distant future, the Holocaust will have passed from living memory,” the irrepressible Presser began. “There will be no survivors left to tell us of the horrors they endured, or the triumph of survival, or even the mundane minutiae that is so rarely acknowledged. What they will have left behind is, of course, extraordinary. In volume. In breadth. In depth.”
He continued: “Countless words, many of them assembled into great works of literature, others into more modest efforts, written down so that their families might know. Thousands upon thousands of hours of audio and video testimony, pictures, diagrams, photos, ephemera of the most varied kinds.
And this: “Soon, however, it will all begin to gather dust, to fade into history. It will become a setting, a context, just like every other historical catastrophe. If this idea offends you, I’m glad. It offends me too. But only because it is the one horror that I have truly known, that has befallen people I have loved. I cannot separate my own connection, my need to desperately cling to its importance, from the inevitable effect of time.”
Presser aimed his sights mostly at fellow countryman Heather Morris and her strange pulpy concoction of Nazi camp sex story and make-believe, marketed by her savvy PR team as “based on a true story” when in fact the PR people were lying through their teeth.
The only thing “true” about the ”story” Morris tells is that Lali Sokolov was in fact an inmate in Auschwitz for two and a half years during the Nazi Holocaust in the 1940s and served some time as part of a team of concentration camp tattooists who used a Nazi-designed a wooden tattoo stamp inked into the arms of fellow Jewish inmates as they came through the Devil’s doors. Lali didn’t ink the tattoos on the skins with a then tattoo tool as we see in today’s hip tattoo parlors in New York and Sydney, no. He used the mass-produced wooden tattoo inker that the always-efficient German SS designed specificallyu for use in the death camps.
“I often wonder about the shape of Holocaust memory in a post-survivor world,” Presser wrote. “In particular, I question the role of the novelist in keeping memory alive. Fiction has always had its place alongside memoir and nonfiction when it comes to telling stories about the Holocaust. Even in the survivor generation, for every Primo Levi or Viktor Frankl, there was an Aharon Appelfeld or Imre Kertesz.”
“Later, fiction became a way for the children of survivors to confront the trauma that had rendered their parents silent. The third generation, with the benefit of time and an enormous ocean of primary sources, could search for essential truths that the historical record alone could not hope to convey. So too, writers with no personal connection at all. But the one thing that anchored all of them — access to firsthand accounts that are not frozen in form or substance — will soon disappear. No longer will writers be able to speak with survivors, ask questions, clarify. This might all seem obvious, but it is also critically important because what is at stake is the future of Holocaust narrative.”
Then the Australian literaray detective digs in and shows that he is not afraid to call the book what some pundits overseas have said it is: a Holocaust ”hoax” of the literary kind.
Here’s Presser: “Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the recent controversy surrounding The Tattooist of Auschwitz, an international bestseller based on “the incredible true story” of Lali Sokolov. Its author, the [non-Jewish Kiwi-Australian] Heather Morris, has long maintained that the novel is “95 percent fact,” but it has become increasingly apparent that she took considerable liberties with the story.”
Lali Sokolov’s own family, [especially his son Gary, 60,] is said by one Australian newspaper to be dismayed by Morris’s portrayal. But more telling, Presser notes, is the response from the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center.
“In an unprecedented move, the Center has [publicly] come out against the book and its distortion of the realities of the camp,” Bram adds. “It even went so far as to publish a fact-checking report, which refutes many of Morris’s descriptions and historical observations.”
The Center’s PR and press team ultimately concluded, in an interview with Jewish-Australian reporter Fiona Harari with ”The Australian” newspaper that ”The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is “almost without value as a document.”
Another leading Holocaust scholar, from Australia, an expert from the Sydney Jewish Museum who refused to attend the novel’s launch last February because he felt the book, after reading an early reader’s copy the Melbourne publisher sent him hoping for a blurb, was not accurate at all, called it “a sex story of Auschwitz that has very little historical accuracy.”
As Presser observes, this controversy is not going to away anytime soon and is not the first time that such a fuss has been made about a popular Holocaust novel. Similar accusations, he notes, were also leveled at John Boyne’s ”The Boy In The Striped Pajamas,” for example.
Like ”The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” Boyne’s novel — which tells the story of a young Jewish boy who befriends the son of the camp commandant — was accused of ”minimizing” and ”sanitizing” the Holocaust. Even the London-based ”Literary Review,” about as un-Jewish a publication as you could imagine, devoted an entire editorial to the novel’s problematic nature, according to Presser.
Presser, ever the gentleman, charitably says that there are often two sides to these debates, noting: ”Boyne had his supporters, too. For the most part they pointed to the book’s allegorical, almost fantastical nature. It was a kid’s book, after all, and its value lay in its message, not its fidelity or otherwise to the historical record.”
And that has been ”the line” taken by Morris and her savvy Melbourne publishers: no mere novel ever claims to stand in place of history.
“‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ is fiction, and popular fiction at that. Sounds logical, I guess,” Presser adds.
But here comes the kicker: ”But is there not an ethical obligation, no matter how fantastical your story, to get the basic facts right? ”
Leaving aside Morris’s much-criticized ”claim” about her book being allegedly only 5 percent removed from truth (despite multiple critical departures from Sokolov’s [actual] Shoah Foundation testimony, which it would appear the Melbourne wannabe screenwriter never watched), the real problem with ”The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is not that it gets Lali’s story wrong, but that it gets Auschwitz wrong.
“Very wrong,” emphasizes Presser. “And given its [overwhelming bestseller success] the version of Auschwitz it describes risks becoming dominant in the historical narrative, especially at a time when studies show that general knowledge of the Holocaust is at an all-time low and falling.
Presser, himself a Holocaust novelist, stops there to ask the Big Question: ”So, if distortion is already a growing phenomenon, where does that leave the Holocaust novelist? ”
And another question: “What happens when there are no survivors left [in 50 years] and the Holocaust exists, in the creative sense, as just another historical setting?”
Bram’s straight-forward answer: “One thing is for sure. [The Holocaust] will continue to be fertile ground for fiction. As one English bookseller said to me, “Put in a few Nazis, and it’s sure to [sell hundreds of thousands of copies.]”
Presser’s final literary cri de coeur: “It is incumbent upon writers to ground themselves in deep knowledge of any aspect of the Holocaust about which they write. Research, cross-check, question. All the more so if, like Morris, you are turning a survivor’s story into a novel that you will be passing off as [allegedly] “95 percent fact.” Trauma and time do terrible things to memory, [as it likely did to Lali Sokolov’s memory at the age of 87 when he first started incoherenty babbling to his new best friend forever Heather Morris.]”
And Holocaust scholars and New York Times book reviewers, make note of this: “Seeking to corroborate, to correct, is the ultimate act of respect, not some cynical surrender to doubt. Lali Sokolov deserved better than to have his story left open to questioning and criticism. His lapses can easily be accounted for. Heather Morris’s cannot.”