Book review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Out of one of the worst periods of human history comes an inspirational story of love, hope and survival'¦ a beacon of light amidst the dark ruins of the Holocaust.
For three years before his death in 2006, Lale Sokolov poured out his incredible and heartbreaking account of life and love in the Auschwitz concentration camp to New Zealand-born author Heather Morris… a tale of the best and worst of humanity, and one that he had kept hidden for 60 years.
Lale Sokolov (born Ludwig Eisenberg to Jewish parents in Slovakia) had been assigned to an unenviable but privileged job… he was the camp’s Tätowierer, the tattooist charged with marking his fellow prisoners with a number that they would carry on their arm forever, and which would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust.
And waiting in line one day in 1942 – terrified and shaking – was a young woman with beautiful, dark brown eyes who caused his heart ‘simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time.’
She was Gita Fuhrmannova, also from Slovakia, and she would become the love of Lale’s life, the two surviving against all odds to spend the rest of their lives together.
I tattooed a number on her arm, she tattooed her name on my heart, he later told Morris.
After Gita’s death in 2003, Lale became part of Morris’ family in Australia as he shared his haunting memories and for 12 years his story existed as a screenplay but now it has been released as an extraordinarily moving novel, giving power and immediacy to real people and real events.
Lale was a courageous, determined and remarkable man who used his privileged position at the camp to help others… saving part of his extra rations to feed starving prisoners, employing his multi-lingual talents, and giving hope and strength where there was none.
When he entered the grim portals of Auschwitz on the first transport from Slovakia in the spring of 1942, Lale Sokolov was a well-dressed charmer, a ladies’ man who had freely offered himself to the Nazis to spare the rest of his family. He had no idea of the horrors that lay in wait.
Lale soon realised that to survive he must do as he’s told and ‘always observe,’ and he made a vow to himself. ‘I will live to leave this place. I will walk out a free man. If there is hell, I will see these murderers burn in it.’
Strong and able, he was looked up to and looked out for by his fellow prisoners, and after a spell as assistant to Pepan, a French tattooist who mysteriously disappeared one day, he took over the position of Tätowierer, gaining extra rations and a room of his own.
Death and degradation still remained only a heartbeat away but after falling in love with Gita, who stole his heart at first glance, Lale’s life was given new purpose. With the help of an SS guard, he managed to smuggle letters to Gita in the Birkenau women’s camp and he traded goods with local villagers to buy more rations for those in need.
Through struggle and suffering, both Lale and Gita survived but when the Nazis began shipping prisoners out of Auschwitz in 1945, Gita disappeared without a trace. However, Lale never lost hope and made his way to Bratislava, a crossing place for concentration camp survivors on their way back to Czechoslovakia.
He was rewarded when they met by chance in the middle of a street and they married in October 1945, setting up home in Bratislava where Lale launched a flourishing import business. But after being imprisoned by the government in 1948 for sending financial support to establish a Jewish state in Israel, Lale escaped and he and Gita fled to a new life in Melbourne where their son Gary was born in 1961.
Lale’s harrowing but unforgettable story is one of beauty and brutality, life and death, humanity and inhumanity, but through it all the flame of hope never dies. It is the beacon that sees him through the very worst of times and gives light to the rest of his days.
An extraordinary story of an extraordinary love…
(Zaffre, hardback, £12.99)