The Tattooist of Auschwitz


I hope that writers never stop telling stories of the Holocaust. I have read many, and each time the horror is shocking. Each time I am tempted to turn the page or scan paragraphs describing torture, unspeakable inhumanity, but I read. I only have to read. I do not have to live or re-live it. But we must keep it alive, so thank you Heather Morris for telling this story.

As I read the unfolding story I noticed that I felt less emotion than with some other Holocaust books. Was I developing a weird sort of “compassion fatigue” after reading repeated accounts of abuse and torture? Is this a thing? Perhaps. But I find that with each account I read, the writer offers a light of hope that brings me back. And I noticed this time that it wasn’t the horrors that brought me to tears. It was the glimmer of hope seen in a simple act of kindness.

It is the very, very end of the protagonist Lale’s long journey home after escaping from his imprisonment at the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is spent on every human level, physical, emotional, spiritual, with a single focus. To get home. He finds a train station and uses two coveted diamonds to pay for his passage. He is now eight hours from home by train.

As Lale is heading for the end carriage he is stopped by a call from the stationmaster, who catches up to him and hands him food and a thermos. “It’s just a sandwich the wife made, but the coffee’s hot and strong.”

Taking the food and coffee, Lale’s shoulders sag and he can’t hold back the tears. He looks up to see that the stationmaster also has tears in his eyes as he turns away, heading back to his office.

“Thank you.” He can barely get the words out.

Day breaks as they reach the border with Sloviakia. An official approaches Lale and asks for his papers. Lale rolls up his sleeve to show his only form of identification : 32407.

“I am Slovak,” he says.

“Welcome home.”

It’s very easy, far too easy, for me to forget the balm of kindness on the suffering spirit. It’s far to easy for me to miss the suffering, to simply not see it. The practice of living in the present moment is very popular these days. Which is wonderful when the present moment is filled with sunshine and connection. But it is not quite so easy when the present moment means watching a young woman head into her chemo infusion by herself, no one else there for support. Love is all around us. Yes. So is suffering. Experiencing that present moment and allowing compassionate love to infuse and relieve the suffering, that is the challenge. That is the grace.