I first noticed this book on my Instagram feed, and it is a World War II novel so naturally it piqued my interest. I filed it in my “want to read” shelf on Good Reads, and didn’t give it much thought after that. I would get to it eventually. But then I started to notice it more frequently on Instagram, and then daily on my Facebook feed. When people started raving about it in one of the Facebook groups I am in, I bumped it up my reading list and bought the book.
The story opens in April of 1942, where Ludwig Eisenberg, or Lale, has been traveling in a cattle car full of young men for days. He doesn’t know where he is going, or what will happen when he gets there, but he knows that going to work for the Germans will keep his family safe. That’s what the posters that were hung all over his small town said: if Jews handed over their young men over the age of 18 to work for the German government, the rest of the family would be safe. And since Jews could no longer work and their businesses were confiscated, they really had little choice.
Lale is finally able to get out of the cattle car only to walk out and face angry SS soldiers, holding guns, demanding orders and viscous dogs barking and biting at passengers. Lale has found himself at Auschwitz, with the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” over the iron gates. “Work Sets You Free”.
Lale starts working on roofs of the new buildings being constantly built, but quickly befriends a soldier, and he starts to gain favour. He then meets Pepan, the Tätowierer, or the tattooist. Pepan takes him under his wing, gets him a job helping him tattoo the incoming Jews, a job that comes with a bed all to himself and extra food rations. It is here that he meets her, as he tattoos the green number into her arm. #34902. Through a simple courtship, mostly Lale sneaking her food and letters with the help of an SS soldier, he quickly falls in love with this woman, and eventually finds out that her name is Gita.
Lale sets up a rather simple but dangerous system. He befriends some of the girls working in the collection rooms, where they steal some of the gold, gems and money that belonged to the Jews coming into the concentration camp. He then trades the goods with workers who live outside of the compound for food and chocolate. Lale then brings the food to his friends and allies, buying some freedom to visit with Gita, and undoubtedly saved a few lives.
The conditions are deplorable. If prisoners didn’t die from a bullet or end up in one of the gas chambers, they died of malnutrition, typhus, contact with an electrified fence, or exposure to the harsh winter environment. Lale learns not to judge fellow prisoners who work for the Nazi’s too harshly. They are doing precisely what he was doing…whatever they had to do to survive.
There are just not enough words to describe how much I enjoyed this book. It was so well written, and so thought provoking! I am not going to lie, I cried a few times. To read a story and know these atrocities happened in real life is heartbreaking. It was just so lovely to read of a romance that can blossom in such an unforgiving environment, where the worst of humanity was witnessed.
When I completed the book, there was a very informative section regarding the characters and the authors at the back. What I did not know prior to reading the story was that it was based on a true story! The author met with Lale after Gita had passed away. Lale was 87 at the time, and he wanted his story to be told to the world. He waited years to tell this story, and wanted the perfect author to write it. I think he chose well. The author took a few creative avenues to put Lale and Gita into situations that had not actually happened for the purpose of the love story, but by and large the severe realities of war were real. The author did a lot of research along with her discussions with Lale, and found out after Lale had passed away that his parents were brought to Auschwitz and died there prior to his arrival. He never knew.
This book is going to stick with me for quite a while. Knowing it’s based on a true story just makes it so much more important to read. It was by far my best read of 2018, and definitely top 5 of the last decade. I can’t recommend it enough, and hope you will pick it up and that it touches your heart as much as it did mine!