Permanently Marked: Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Lale Sokolov waited for six decades to tell the story of his time in Auschwitz, when he was put to work as a tattooist, indelibly inking identification numbers into the arms of new arrivals.
Until he was introduced to author Heather Morris in his 87th year, he rarely spoke of the atrocities he witnessed, the regular brushes with death, the survival skills he learned, the bargains he made, the love he found, lost, then found again. Lale led a quiet life, happily married to Gita, the woman he fell in love with in Auschwitz. The two were married for many happy years while raising their son, Gary, settling in Australia.
Morris’s friend told her about Lale — his wife had recently passed away and he was looking for someone to record his story. Until that point, his story had been a closed chapter; it was the pact the couple had made to live their best lives as a means to honor all of those who did not survive the Holocaust.
But now, he was ready to tell his story, and not just to any writer. He had to find someone to trust, someone who could peel back the layers of suppressed memories and emotions and exhume the story that had been lying dormant for decades. It was his dog that convinced Lale that Morris was the one to tell his story.
Morris explains, “Three to four months into our friendship, one of his dogs brought a tennis ball to Lale but growled when he went to take it from its mouth. The dog put her head on my lap and I took the tennis ball, threw it over my shoulder, sending her and her other four-legged companion scampering after it. Lale turned to me and said, ‘My doggies like you, I like you, you can tell my story.’”
Lale knew that Morris was not Jewish; in his mind, that further qualified her. He wanted “someone with no baggage, no family history of the Holocaust or even Judaism, to hear his story as an unbiased recorder,” says Morris.
Not being Jewish enabled Morris to write in an objective style. “I couldn’t include Jewish culture or phrases that might have been foreign to a non-Jewish reader. It enabled me to tell the story simply, not complicate it with a history I knew nothing of,” she says.
She did consult with outside sources, including a Jewish friend who read an early draft to make sure that her interpretation of Lale’s story was accurate and authentic. “I found I wanted to know more about Lale’s culture and religion to help me understand him, not simply to write his story, and I relished this education,” she explains.
Still, it wasn’t until 2018, a few months after the book was released, that Morris visited Auschwitz. She notes, “Many survivors have told me how well I portrayed the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau and are surprised to learn I hadn’t been there prior to writing. This proves how well Lale knew the place and could describe it to me.”
Morris and Lale met two to three times a week initially; at first, he was anxious to tell his story so that he could join Gita. “My first impression was of a terribly grieving man who just wanted to join his deceased wife,” Morris says. “I knew straight away I was spending time with living history, and if he would allow me to keep visiting him, eventually I hoped to get his story. I took him to my home and he met my husband and three adult children. Everyone fell in love with him. The trust and friendship grew.” The ‘real’ Lale eventually emerged.
“That our friendship grew to the level he could share intimate details of his and Gita’s life together reinforced in me the need to tell his story honestly, without embellishment, honoring all those who didn’t survive,” Morris continues. “It was of paramount importance that I not attempt to tell the Story of the Holocaust. I would tell A Holocaust Story. The story of Lale and Gita.”
Morris originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay; the two hoped it would be optioned for a film. Ultimately, that did not come to pass. She transformed it into a novel, freeing her to include Gita’s story as well as that of the other girls in the women’s camp.
Their conversations were cathartic for Lale, and he began to shed his six-decades-old survivor’s guilt. “I watched a physical and emotional change come over him. He stopped talking about joining Gita. He would skip and dance around his living room. We went out for coffee; we went to movies. He reconnected with the Jewish Community he had withdrawn from following Gita’s death, often taking me with him and cheekily introducing me as his ‘girlfriend,’” Morris says.
A true friendship developed, lasting until the day Lale died, three years after their first meeting. “I spent time with him on that last day, kissing him good-bye and telling him I would never stop trying to tell his story. Twelve years later, the day the book was released in Australia, I found time to visit him and Gita. I got to tell him ‘I kept my promise, Lale, I kept my promise.’”
Morris is currently working on a book about Cilka, one of the real-life characters in The Tattooist of Auschwitz, who became the Commandant’s concubine and was sent to a Siberian Gulag.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Harper US / Zaffre UK, 2018.
About the contributor:Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Historical Novels Review. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, two redheaded teenage daughters, and a dog of undetermined breed. https://hilarydaninhirsch.journoportfolio.com
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 86 (November 2018)