Barry Newman

Righting the wrongly-numbered Auschwitz tattoo

How much poetic license is acceptable in the fusion of art and the Holocaust?

The question came to mind recently as I came across several reviews of the recently released television series, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Based on best-selling 2018 novel of the same name, the series purports to dramatize the romance between Lale Sokolov, an inmate at Auschwitz who managed to obtain the “coveted” task of inking the identification numbers on the arms of the infamous camp’s prisoners, and Gita Furman, a fellow inmate who Lale tattooed with her designated number. The blossoming of love under impossible conditions certainly makes for a compelling story, but the Holocaust is much more than background scenery in any work of fiction, drama, or film; it is a major character in and of itself.

Both the novel and the series are not without controversy. A number of respected historians and Holocaust researchers took note of several inconsistencies – in both – including the fact that the number tattooed onto the arm of the character Gita was not the same as the one that was etched onto the arm of the real Gita. Several critics, including the Jerusalem Post’s Hannah Brown, argue that these are “very minor” issues and nothing more than “small, honest mistakes.” Others, on the other hand, rightfully wonder if something as historically significant as an identifying tattoo was incorrect, what else might have been misconstrued.

When asked about these troublesome facts, Heather Morris, the author of the novel, shrugged and defended herself by claiming to have written not the story of the Holocaust but a Holocaust story. Somehow, a depiction of the Holocaust that begins “Once upon a time…” or “It was a dark and stormy night…” sounds, well, off. Here, the late Elie Wiesel would undoubtedly have had a word or two to say. In a 1989 essay published in the New York Times, the Nobel Laureate had expressed concern that the Holocaust had become “fashionable” and was, to his chagrin, becoming exploited by the entertainment industry. Which comes back to my opening question: how much leeway can be given to authors, filmmakers, and playwrights when describing events and individuals related to the genocide of the Jewish people? And in addition: can someone who never experienced being part of that nightmare be relied on to accurately describe it?

It’s fair to say that the Holocaust has become a stand-alone genre rather than being a subset of, say, historical fiction or adventure. But more than that, future generations will turn to the Holocaust-themed novels, television programs, and films for an understanding of what went on during that unimaginable decade and the trauma that those who survived had to – and in many cases still have to – endure. So, while WWII battles may be conceived as part of an historical novel, cultural artefacts may be invented for an adventure film, and new planets may be discovered during a science fiction television series, creativity must be severely limited when dealing with the holocaust. For this specific genre, the demarcation line between fact and fiction must be as thin as tissue paper.

In the case of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, accuracy has become as submerged in a fog as proverbially thick as pea soup. Rather than gaining some understanding of what life in Auschwitz was like and what the rarely-discussed tattooing activity involved, readers and viewers encounter the sort of schmaltzy love story typical of the paperbacks that are found in airport kiosks and book stores.

Which is a disservice to both readers who are genuinely interested in learning about what went on in the infamous concentration camps and the increasingly diminishing number of living survivors who still can relate their memories of the horrors that were faced each day. Popular novels and films of the Holocaust are, in very many cases, little more than the product of an artist’s imagination and an unfaithful adaptation of actual facts. Too often, instead of gaining an understanding of the camps and the Nazi plan for committing their planned atrocities, the images are a collage of inauthentic and invented events, conversations, and thought processes.

As a result of the novel’s international popularity, from time to time several of the two-million or so annual visitors to Auschwitz ask for a “in the footsteps of The Tattooist of Auschwitz” tour, and are disappointed when the request is refused. Auschwitz tour guides have explained that there are just too many inaccuracies regarding the landscape of the camp and the location of scenes and events depicted in the novel. To put together such a tour would be to add an additional layer of misrepresentation to what already exists.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is by no means the only work of popular fiction that has caused consternation among serious scholars of the Holocaust. The 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, written by the non-Jewish Irish writer John Boyne, and its 2008 film adaption has been accused, by some, of introducing new and troublesome misconceptions about the Holocaust by providing the “other side of the coin” perspective . In a survey conducted by the Center for Holocaust Education in London, researchers found that this work of art actually elicited “profound” feelings of sympathy for German and even Nazi families. Even staunch proponents of freedom of expression, I suspect, will find this to be a good deal discomforting.

Screen adaptations of Holocaust-themed novels, moreover, face the additional challenge of not being able to rely on human imagination to fill in details or complete images. In works of fiction, narrative descriptions of concentration camp gas chambers, for example, need not include each and every nut and bolt, nor are dimensions particularly useful information in novels. When adapted for either the large or small screen, however, the specifics very much define authenticity and accuracy. The creators of these adaptations not infrequently overlook or misrepresent details that might seem insignificant or irrelevant but are in fact critical from an historical perspective. That, it would appear, are the charges The Tattooist of Auschwitz is facing.

Those who survived and walked out of the camps will not easily dismiss understated or exaggerated descriptions in works of Holocaust-themed art as minor flaws or acceptable creative embellishment. They will argue, correctly, that the history of this genocidal period dares not be  either rewritten nor redrawn. Future generations must know what happened and not what some fertile imagination thought could have happened.

And just to set the record straight, the arm of the character of Gita Furman in The Tattooist of Auschwitz was tattooed with the number 34902.  The number assigned to the actual Gita was 4562.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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