Anyone who knew Lale and Gita Sokolov well was aware their forearms had been inked with their history. Each of them bore a blue five-figure tattoo identifying them as Holocaust survivors, inmates of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
What the couple never revealed was that it was Lale who had etched those numbers on his own wife, as well as countless thousands of others. He had been the camp’s Tätowierer, its tattooist. As Gita waited in line for hers, 34902, ragged, filthy and shorn of her hair and her dignity, it had been love at first sight.
It was something they rarely spoke about to each other, their son Gary or the Jewish community in Melbourne where they fled from the chaos of post-war Europe. But after Gita died, Lale started talking and did not stop.
As he finally faced his own mortality, his stories of token collaboration and secret insurrection, of hidden diamonds and stolen chocolate, of love letters and sudden savage death at the hands of camp doctor Josef Mengele, flooded out.
His fictionalised memoir, The Tattooist Of Auschwitz, has become this year’s sleeper hit, a global bestseller now being turned into a TV series by the team responsible for the BBC’s acclaimed drama The Cry. It will be broadcast in early 2020, just before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.
Author Heather Morris says, ‘Lale rationalised his work by deciding that if you came to him for numbering then you were one of the lucky ones – it meant you got to see the sun come up the next day, and maybe the day after that too. He had a unique position in Auschwitz and he used it to save as many people as he could. Recently a woman told me she and her father owed their lives to Lale without ever having known his real identity. Her father had been a 17-year-old prisoner due to die. A much older man had volunteered to take his place and Lale had re-inked their numbers in secret, swapping their identities. That teenager grew into a man, got married, had a family and a future because of the tattooist.
‘In the years after Auschwitz Lale had an uncanny ability to live life in the now. He was very skilled at shutting down his past. It took me three years of visiting him two or three times a week to piece together those memories. He had survivor’s guilt, a pain he’d buried for 60 years.
‘There was an element of the confessional about it but his primary focus was telling the world about Gita after she had died. He kept asking me, “Have you finished yet? I need to hurry up and join her!”’
It is the Sokolovs’ love story that gives Morris’s book its emotional engine, juxtaposing the evil done in the camp with the finest parts of human nature. It begins in April 1942 when the Nazis forced one volunteer from each Jewish family in Slovakia to go and work for the German war machine.
The then 24-year-old Lale reported for duty in a sharp suit, a crisp white shirt and a tie. Forty-eight hours later, covered in oil, sweat, vomit and faeces, he was herded off a cattle train by SS stormtroopers and into Auschwitz at gunpoint.
He took on the role of camp tattooist, a privileged job which he leveraged to keep himself and others alive. As well as changing or obliterating the tattoos of the condemned, he bartered gems pilfered from Nazi treasure troves for food and medicine for those in most need, and used his knowledge of half a dozen languages to knit together snippets of intelligence.
In liberation he lost Gita, but he never doubted they would be reunited. Indeed, he’d only been back in Slovakia for a fortnight when, quite by chance, she stepped out in front of his horse and cart. The first words from his mouth were a marriage proposal and they wed in October 1945.
‘It was,’ says Morris, ‘their Hollywood moment.’ The Sokolovs emigrated to Australia in 1949 and built a textile business. Gary, their miracle baby, was born in 1961. It was Gary who found Morris, a friend of a friend and told her his father might have a story worth telling.
Morris is a warm and motherly character, a social worker who has made a career from inviting emotional trust and dealing with damaged people. So while she was not an obvious choice as writer, she proved to be an excellent one.
She and Lale, who died aged 90 in 2006, developed a close friendship, and since she was originally planning to write a screenplay, she would drive him to movies so he could create his fantasy cast list. ‘He began with Brad Pitt but quickly moved on to Ryan Gosling to play himself. For Gita it was only ever going to be Natalie Portman,’ she laughs.
‘Even on the eve of his 90th birthday Lale still saw himself as that dapper young man, the man he’d been before Auschwitz.
‘He never lost that sense of himself.’
‘The Tattooist Of Auschwitz’ by Heather Morris is out now, published by Zaffre, available in paperback, eBook and audio.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.