Heather Morris reports on how she became entrusted by a Holocaust survivor to tell the story of him and his wife in the camp
In October 2003 Gita Sokolov died in Melbourne, Australia, aged 78. Her death led her husband of 58 years, Lale, to ask their son to find him someone he could tell their story to: a story he wanted to share; a story he and Gita had kept largely to themselves since 1945.
I had spent several years learning the craft of screenwriting. I had been drawn to stories based on true events and people, one of which had been optioned by an academy award-winning screenwriter in the US, Pamela Wallace (Witness). Over coffee with a friend she told me of a friend of hers who knew this man whose father had a story I might be interested in hearing. She knew nothing of the story other than it related to the man's time in Auschwitz concentration camp. I was hooked.
On the afternoon of 3 December that year I was greeted at his door by a quiet unassuming man, a dog either side of him - one the size of a small pony, the other smaller than my cat. He uttered the word "come", and he and his escort turned and walked back into his apartment. I followed and sat at the dining table pointed to as my hosts disappeared into a nearby kitchen, returning shortly after and placing a cup of lukewarm coffee in front of me.
Lale was a reluctant interviewee at first. He seemed confused: he wanted his story told, but he didn't want to tell it. It was obvious he was grieving terribly, as he repeated often how he wanted to be with Gita. I hadn't brought any recording or writing materials, choosing just to listen to the man who had asked to meet me and who apparently had no desire to tell his story or explain what it was about. Then he whispered the words, "I was the Tatowierer you know." A foreign word to me; I had to ask him to explain.
With that he opened up. For the next two hours he talked non-stop. Names, places, what he did, what he witnessed, always coming back to the point where he met Gita and fell in love with her. I was listening to what was essentially the ramblings of an old man, albeit one with a delightful Eastern European accent. There were times when I felt chilled to the bone on what was a hot summer day. There were times I fought back tears as Lale recounted episodes from his two-plus years in Auschwitz/Birkenau.
At one point Lale got up and retrieved a photo from a nearby console. A smiling Gita looked at us both. "She was beautiful wasn't she?" he said. He clutched the photo to his chest while he continued. His dogs had determined I was not a threat, and now lay sleeping at his feet. I was exhausted, emotionally drained. I couldn't take in a lot of what I was hearing, but I felt that I was sitting with living history, and I didn't want to leave.
After a while, Lale started to get restless, and I realised he'd said enough for now. I gently reached out, placed my hand over his, and asked if I could come back the following week. He grasped my hand and said he'd like that.
I drove away stunned. The streets around me were festooned with Christmas decorations. So joyful, promising a time of celebrations and valued family time. I wanted to tear them down. How can anyone be happy when a beautiful old man who had survived the worst humanity could throw at him had now lost the person who had held him together for so long?
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is my account of the life of Lale and Gita Sokolov, prisoners 32407 and 34902 in Auschwitz/Birkenau from 1942 to 1945. I considered writing it as a biography or a memoir, but neither of these genres would have given me the flexibility to tell the story in the way I wanted. I wanted to interweave the personal account with what my research uncovered - for example, to show Lale and Gita together when the Sonderkommando attempted to blow up one of the crematoria. I also wanted to reveal Lale's back story by way of dreams, to show the man before imprisonment and the source of the strength that drove him to survive.
The book at its core is a love story set in the most appalling of situations. It is also a story of a "friendship" open to harsh scrutiny, fraught with danger and not easily explained - the tightrope Lale had to walk, maintaining an uneasy relationship with his SS minder. There were times when Lale would talk lightly of his time with this SS officer, before turning angry and saying, "You have no idea how many times he threatened to shoot me, even putting his revolver against my head." Educated, street smart, intelligent Lale was able to use this relationship to further his romance with Gita. Was this a morally reprehensible thing to do under the circumstances? No. He did what he had to do to survive.
I have been asked why Lale chose me, a non-Jewish person, to write his story. It was a question I asked him at our first meeting. He replied that he wanted someone who had no personal knowledge or baggage related to the Holocaust. I certainly met that requirement. There were times when it was difficult for me to understand conversations he and Gita had about faith, but in the end I determined that I needed only to understand the love, pain and suffering being conveyed to me, and to do my best to represent them in my writing.
I am humbled and privileged to have been asked to write The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Photos: (top) Lale Sokolov and Heather Morris; (above) Sokolov as a young man.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is out from Zaffre on Thursday, 11 January.