4 Feb 2019

The tattooist of Auschwitz

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:07 pm on 4 February 2019

For 60 years, Lale Sokolov kept a secret, a secret about the job he held at the Auschwitz concentration camp where he was sent as a young Jewish man in April 1942.

Entrance to concentration camp Auschwitz.

Photo: AFP

For three years, he was the one who used a needle and black ink to tattoo numbers on the arms of new arrivals.

The day he tattooed Gita Furman would change his life forever. They fell in love in a place built on hate, survived the camp and settled in Australia. 

When Lale decided to tell his secret, he chose Heather Morris, a screenwriter from Te Awamutu, living in Melbourne.

She tells Jesse Mulligan about her debut novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz, based on their love story, is now being adapted for television.

Morris says she met Sokolov through a friend who knew his son. After the death of his wife, Sokolov had told his son to find him someone who he could tell his story too. Morris says the pain of his loss was still raw. 

“This is a man whose wife of over six decades has just died and he was incredibly grief stricken. He wouldn’t lift his head above the level of the floor for several weeks when I met him. All he would say to me each time was ‘hurry up and tell my story’ even though he hadn’t really given me anything apart from his and Gita’s names and that they met in Auschwitz.

“I was dealing with an extremely grief-stricken man, I just had to take my time getting to know and he had to get to know me and, by default, my family too because it was important. If he was going to unburden and share, particularly the most intimate parts of his time in Auschwitz, then he had to get to know me well.”

Morris says he decided to tell his story after Gita had died because she never spoke about it. 

“To her, it was to be forgotten and never mentioned. Which is why, after her death, Lale decided ’no, I want our story told’”. 

She says earlier on in their first conversations she got enough snippets to know Lale was a “significant man in history.”

“Those tattooed numbers are the most iconic symbols of the Holocaust.”

One day, while speaking together, Lale’s dog Tootsie had a bonding moment with Morris. She says that’s when he decided it was time to truly begin telling his story.

“That was when the true unburdening of the pain and the trauma, the grief, and the survivors guilt that he had endured for so long, started flooding out of him.”

Before Auschwitz, Lale had a great life. Described himself as a playboy living in Bratislava where he had lots of girlfriends, a great job, and always looked immaculate. “He identified himself as a man about town.” 

“That makes it all the more incredible that, when he held the arm of an 18-year-old girl dressed in rags with her head shaven and unbathed, he could look in her eyes and fall immediately in love.” 

Arriving at Auschwitz, Lale was saved by a French man who tattooed the new prisoners. The French man took him under his wing and told him he might be able to get him through the experience.

“He and every survivor I’ve ever spoke to, and I’ve been privileged to speak to many, the one thing that they all credited their survival with is that they were lucky.”

Lale told Morris that prisoners who got tattooed were lucky because it meant they were being put to work and would survive another day. 

Lale Sokolov and Gita in Sydney after they survived  Auschwitz

Lale Sokolov and Gita in Sydney after they survived Auschwitz Photo: Courtesy of the Sokolov Family and Heather Morris

Gita and Lale met when he was re-doing her faded tattoo. Nazi doctors were walking the queues decided which girls to pick out for themselves when Lale felt Gita was about to speak. He looked at her and squeezed her arm to signal that she shouldn’t.

“Their eyes met, and all he could say was ’shhhh’.” 

Lale was free to access any part of the camp for his work, which meant he could seek out Gita. 

“That freedom of movement is what could get him to within proximity of Gita to begin to weave his spell on her, and he did.”

Lale was also helped by an SS guard who helped him steal some private moments with Gita, but who could also be sadistic, which presented a challenge to Morris.

“The last thing I wanted to do, and the last thing anybody writing a holocaust story should do, would be - in any way - to create or build up any member of the SS into something that we don’t want to think of them being. The reality is, and in fact I’ve of heard many other SS, who could have that grain of kindness. But they were still brutal, horrible people. And Lale’s minder was no exception. Except, he treated Lale fine.”

“It was a difficult relationship to weave together, but I had to tell it the way Lale told me.”

The Tattoist of Auschwitz

The Tattoist of Auschwitz Photo: supplied

Morris says she chose to write the book as a novel so she could fill in the gaps in the story and include more of Gita. 

“A memoir would have to have only what Lale witnessed and experienced and I wanted to tell a story that wove together their relationship with what else was going on in the camp, hence the title ‘historical fiction’.” 

Some critics have accused Morris of glossing over the more horrible aspects of the holocaust, but she says she has no regrets about the way she wrote it. 

“I was telling a holocaust story, not the holocaust story. And thankfully there are many, many other writers, both current and historically and academically, who’ve written the story of the holocaust. I just hope that many more personal stories like this can be told. There’s well over a million of them out there and there’s room in this world for both styles of writing.”

While in the camps, Lale also had some interactions with Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi scientist known for his sadistic experiments on human beings. 

“Oh how I would have loved to kept him out of it altogether. It was the one person that whenever Lale even thought about him - and I could tell when he did - his reaction would be incredible, emotionally and physically. He would react with shaking and he’d lose his voice.

“He took me around the Holocaust Museum in Melbourne for the first time and at one point he got a little bit ahead of me and all of a sudden I heard him screaming out profanities. I raced to him and other people raced to him as he collapsed. And there he was with his finger pointing at a photo of Mengele about two feet from him. Such was the effect 60 years later that that man had on him.”

Late and Gita had lost everything following the end of the war and could not even return to their home village. However, their son Gary says they were raised in a household full of life despite these tragedies. 

“When you lose everything, and you only have each other, and it was love that bought you together in the first place, then of course that’s all you’re going to give back.”

Morris’ next work will focus on another character she encountered while talking with Lale, a girl called Silka who was taken as a sex slave in Auschwitz. After the camp was liberated, Silka was accused of sleeping with the enemy and sent to the Gulag where she remained for ten years. While there she met a Ukranian dissident writer who she spent the rest of her life with. Morris says the book is set be launched in October.

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