Danny Bloom
I seek the truth wherever it lies.

Readers say their say about controversial Holocaust romance novel ‘Tattooist’

In a recent article by Alison Flood, the Guardian newspaper’s veteran beat reporter covering the book industry in Britain, the newspaper waded into the ongoing controversy and brouhaha over the publication in the UK and 25 other countries of  “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.”

The headline reads: ”The Tattooist of Auschwitz attacked as inauthentic by camp memorial centre.’ The subheadline reads: ”Report for the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre claims inaccuracies in Heather Morris’s hit novel ‘blur the authenticity’ of the true history.”

Floods begins her 1500-word piece with this  paragraph: “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,” Flood shared.

Following two earlier articles bringing up similar arguments that have appeared from The New York Times bureau in Melbourne and The Australian newspaper in Sydney, the Guardian piece is even more devastating to both the author and the small publisher in Melbourne. Read the article here and see for yourself. Make up your own mind.

Readers around the world have been reacting to these news articles about the novel, and in an Australian newspaper the following 19 comments from readers are worth considering. I’ve listed the comments here. If you would like to make a comment yourself, pro or con, please feel free to use the comment box at the end of this blog post.

1. ”To the author Heather Morris: Either you write history about people and events in the past, or you write fiction. In fiction, use fictional persons and names. If not, you are a disgrace, especially in the case of the Holocaust.”

2. “Yes, Mrs Morris could easily have changed the names of the characters from their real life names —  (making the novel total fiction) but, of course, you sell more books if it looks like a ‘true story’ .”

3. “We mustn’t taint the memory of Auschwitz with innacuracies.”

4. ”I have been lucky enough to visit Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and a Jewish cemetery outside Prague. The home of the Anne Frank family in Amsterdam and to stand next to her plaque in the fields of Bergen-Belsen. It’s all real when you walk past a glass cabinet with plaits that have been cut off ladies, suitcases with peoples names and childrens’ shoes on display.”

5. “I like a lot the idea in the novel’s story arc that the Nazis with all their gross brutality could not squash the eternal attraction between a man and a woman — Lali and Gita in the novel — and that amid the Nazis’ concerted effort to degrade humanity, love could still bloom. But I think the story Morris tells was coerced and from the real Lali before he died at the age of 90 in Melbourne and I feel she gently and psychologically manipulated him to put memories he didn’t really have into his retelling to  her of what she says he told her happened. The book is not based on a true story, but on a creatively-manipulated series of faked memories to fit her story arc in the screenplay she was writing. Lali went along with her because he dreamed of seeing his life in a Hollywood movie. Heather told him she could make it happen.”

6. “The further we get away — in a chronological sense — from this horrendous past, the more imperative it becomes that accuracy is maintained, fiction or otherwise. Lest we forget.”

7. “I confess that I have not read the novel. Can someone who has and is Jewish please tell me whether the tone, or other suggestions in the book, are somehow disrespectful? I get annoyed by the sloppiness of fiction writers re historical facts, but I wonder if there is more to it than that. In ”Schindler’s List” ….the Nazi camp commander had something sexually ‘illicit’ going on with female a Jewish inmate…. but I do not remember any public utrage about that and yet there is outrage in this case.”

8. “One has to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau to understand the horror of the place.  I doubt that many love stories were ever allowed to flourish in such a horrendous place.  To write otherwise is a sacrilege to the memory of the millions who perished there.  I would find it more believable if the novel was written as a horror story, rather than a love story.”

9. ”A novel?  A fictional work  of people in Auschwitz? Okay, I’m old fashioned but I just don’t think it’s right. I think it trivializes one of the most horrific periods in human history.”

10. ”I have nightmares to this day after my visit to the place.  It was truly a Hell on Earth, and not just for the Jews but also for the hundreds of thousands of others who were shipped, tortured, starved and exterminated there.”

11. ”I have many books on the Holocaust for research purposes, most are difficult to read and I defy any human being to read them straight through, it would make you ‘blue’ for days. Humankind’s worst act of evil, due to the fact that Germany was perhaps the most advanced Western civilisation at the time and they did that, condemning fellow human beings on the base of race and religion to extermination.
As a Jewish friend said when we visited Dachau: ‘It could happen again’.”

12. ”I read the book aware that the author Heather Morris said it was as retold to her by the Holocaust survivor Lali Sokolov involved. Detailed accuracy seems irrelevant in that case. The errors noted seem in context absolutely minor. Even so, while I’m absolutely no expert on the subject, I was surprised at times by the apparent freedom of movement and relationships of some prisoners in the story Morris told. Overall it seemed to me a story of a memory not historical fact.”

13. “Genuine errors are not the same as ……consciously falsifying historical details of a life for the sake of some bogus dramatic effect.”

14. “The novel she wrote is a typical existentialist attempt at being creative. The facts are not as important as the written word and the written word is about the writer subject and not the written about subject. The level of privileged individualism is acceptable if the writer attempts to place their feet into the shoes of the subject. This requires a level of intellectual honesty that is not compatible with most creative writing, particularly about events from 75 odd ago. Hence the moral obligation to be sensitive with regards to any survivors.”

15. “Although as a writer, Morris is free to write whatever she pleases, when she’s writing a fiction around real events and real people where the recorded facts contradict the fiction, people may point that out.”

16. ”The book is a novel based on historical fact —  the author has not done due diligence.  She has insulted the work done by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre and Simon Wiesenthal and many others. It’s shameful what she has done and all for commercial gain.”

17. ”Look, it’s simple: a ‘fiction based on someone’s historical life can easily become slander or character assassination. This is wrong, particularly when the ‘subject’ of the real-life-fictionalised-historical-character is deceased. Mining someone’s life and then distorting it for some dramatic purpose without a clear disclaimer is dishonest. Writers should go to the trouble of creating truely fictional characters within a truely historical setting.”

18. “There seems to be a trend at present to take verifiable historical events and alter them, fictionalise them in some way, for example “Wolf Hall” or “The Da Vinci Code”. These dramatised books are usually much easier to read than a factual history and many people who read them end up with a distorted view of the facts of history.”

19. ”In a book purporting to be set in a historical — for example, the books by Leon — one expects the historical details to be correct, the writer has done their work, even if the characters are actually fictional within a generally correct historical storyline. Where sloppy, lazy or even intentionally ideologically distorted ‘history’ is used (arguably the novelist Dan Brown), historically-naive readers (probably most people) are surreptitiously taken on a false historical ride. If you want to write fiction, with fictional history and characters, then follow the example of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. Historical novel? Get the history right.”

About the Author
Danny Bloom is editor of The Cli-Fi Report at www.cli-fi.net. Danny graduated from Tufts University in Boston in 1971 with a major in Yiddish Literature. A newspaper editor and reporter since his days in Alaska, Japan and Taiwan, he has lived and worked in 14 countries and speaks French, Japanese and Chinese. He hopes to live until 2032, when his tombstone will read "I came, I saw, I ate cho-dofu."
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