Nothing in Heather Morris’s background could have prepared her for meeting 87-year old Holocaust survivor Lale Sokolov, who told her an incredible story about his 2 1/2 years held prisoner by the Nazis in the infamous Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp, a story she turned into the novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Harper, Sept.).
Morris, a retired social worker who lives in Melbourne, Austrialia, was having coffee with a friend one day in 2003. “She said to me, ‘My friend Gary, whose mother has just died, asked me to find someone his father can tell a story to. The only criteria is that he doesn’t want anybody who’s Jewish like he is.’” Morris was interested immediately: “I’d been dabbling in writing, and liked stories based on real people. I said I would like to meet him, and a week later I was knocking on Lale’s door.”
Sokolov, an elderly but spry gentleman, was still grief-stricken over the death of his wife of 60 years, Gita; they’d met as prisoners in Auschwitz. “Sokolov lived in a town not far from me,” Morris says, “and all we were to meet for was a cup of coffee, but neither one of us could stop talking and I was set on a journey with this wonderful man for the next three years.” Briefly, the true story told in The Tattooist of Auschwitz describes how the camp guards gave Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew fluent in five languages, the horrific job of tattooing numbers on the arm of every person who arrived at Auschwitz. His ability to communicate made the long lines of doomed prisoners move more quickly.
One day a beautiful woman barely out of her teens approached the tattooing table. This was Gita. Sokolov told Morris, “I tattooed her number on her left arm, and she tattooed her number in my heart.” The two fell in love and somehow managed – barely – to survive the horrors of Auschwitz together until the camp was liberated in 1945. “The love story makes the book special,” says Morris. “It’s the only book like it in terms of Holocaust literature. Our researchers couldn’t find anything else anywhere.” Sokolov didn’t want a Jew to write his story because of the potential of bringing their own emotional baggage, or a family connection to the Holocaust, to alter the story’s truth. Morris, a non-Jew, knew nothing of Jewish studies or culture at the time. “So I was someone who wouldn’t in any way impinge upon the story Lale wanted told.”
Morris never actually interviewed Sokolov. “I talked to him, week after week,” she says. “Not for at least three months did I even take a pen and paper with me, let alone record the conversations. It took eight months to get the information about Lale’s camp experience. I never tried to drag the details out of him. As a social worker, I know you’re never going to get someone to tell you something if they don’t want to. It was a matter of patience.”
Sokolov had to get to know and trust Morris, who was a stranger to him. She gradually introduced him to her family in Melbourne, and became friendly with his son Gary as well. “It was just wonderful. We went to social events together where Lale would introduce me as his ‘girlfriend,’ Morris says, “and to dinners and out for coffee.” They remained close friends until Sokolov’s death in 2006. As her own grief subsided, Morris began to write the book.
As Sokolov told stories about what he endured and witnessed in Auschwitz, the conversations often became painful. Morris was sensitive to his state of mind while they talked, and went to great lengths to make sure to protect him. “I knew for example that before I left each time, I had to shut him down emotionally, and remove him from the headspace in which we were talking. We always had sport or family to come back to, so when I did leave him he was having a good time – talking to his dogs, watching something on TV, he was in a good mental state.”
But what about Morris’s own reaction to what she’d been listening to? “I would just drive around the block in my car, sit in my car for ten or fifteen minutes, and listen to some music. I knew that I had no right to claim ownership of any of Lale’s pain and grief. It was not mine. I would empathize with it, and then center myself back into my own life. It was a matter of self-protection.”
Sokolov lived in Balaclava, a suburb of Melbourne that has one of the biggest Jewish communities in the city. “Its strip shopping center was where we would go for coffee and run into his many friends, most of them survivors who turned out to be great sources of information,” Morris says. The Tattooist is enriched by the many details it recounts of Lale and Gita’s experiences while in the camp, all of which were confirmed by the fellow survivors he had tattooed.
Sokolov remembered the scores of the bizarre soccer game the bored Auschwitz guards played against the men in his block, and vividly described watching dozens of naked male prisoners forced onto a bus that, once its doors were locked shut, became a converted gas chamber from which Sokolov heard the men screaming as they died. He described the rag-tag coats Gita wore, salvaged from a warehouse filled with the clothing of dead Jews; every conversation he had with his guards; the hidden rooms where he and Gita made love; and the horrible sensation of ash from the crematoriums falling on him. “Lale was 87 when we met,” says Morris, “and in the three years I knew him his memory never deteriorated. He said he was ‘lucky, lucky, lucky’ for surviving Auschwitz, and that luck remained in his ability to recall clearly all points of his life.”
Morris, 65, finally visited Auschwitz/Birkenau in April of this year. “Three months before he died, Lale asked me if I would take him back there,” she says. Sadly, his death prevented that. After The Tattoist was published in the U.K. in January 2018, Morris became extremely popular with the large Jewish communities there, in Australia, and in Europe. She is a frequent speaker at Holocaust conferences. As Morris’s tour bus approached the gates of Auschwitz, where she participated in the “International March of the Living,” she saw a group of about 25 waiting for her outside. They were all from Krompachy, Sokolov’s birthplace in Slovakia. Each wore a badge with the town’s name on it, and held up signs with Sokolov’s name and his birth and death dates. They all hugged Morris and gave her gifts from Krompachy. “And I’m only the person who wrote the book,” she says with awe.
Inside, Morris stood on the concrete step that led down into Crematoria #3 and apologized on Sokolov’s behalf to the 1.5 million people exterminated there. “He wrongly felt it was his fault that he couldn’t save the souls who died there,” says Morris.“Lale’s motto in Auschwitz was, ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’ He believed you owed it to yourself and those around you to make the day the best it could be. And now my family and I try to live by these words.”