The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and the love that helped him survive
Jewish man forced to tattoo other prisoners kept story private for 6 decades
The first time Lale Sokolov met Gita Furman, he pushed a needle into her flesh to tattoo her arm with a five-digit number.
It was July 1942. Both Sokolov and Furman were prisoners in Auschwitz.
As the camp's tetovierer, he had tattooed countless other prisoners, but this time was different. This time, Sokolov fell in love.
"I tattooed her number on her left hand, and she tattooed her number in my heart," he told author Heather Morris, years later.
Nobody in Auschwitz or Birkenau put the fear of God in him quite like Mengele did- Heather Morris
Morris met Sokolov in 2003. He was in his late 80s, and wanted someone to tell a story he had kept private for 60 years.
"How quickly can you write?" he asked when they met. "I need you to work quickly. I don't have much time."
They would meet two to three times a week for the next three years. "The story took three years to untangle .. to earn his trust," Morris recalled. By the time Sokolov died in 2006 at the age of 90, they had become close friends.
Morris released The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a novel based on his true story, in January.
She spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about the true story of what happened to Sokolov in Auschwitz, the love that helped him survive, and why he waited a lifetime to tell their story.
A tattoo meant a chance 'to see the sun come up'
Arriving in Auschwitz, people were split into two lines: those fit to work, and those to be immediately killed.
The workers were sent to Sokolov, clutching a scrap of paper with their camp serial number. He would scratch the numbers into their arm with a needle, rubbing green ink in the bleeding wound.
He knew that anyone "who didn't come to get tattooed ... didn't get to see the sun come up the next day," Morris said.
That's how he rationalized it, she said. If Sokolov had refused, "he wouldn't have seen the sun come up."
To her, they were never going to leave that place, other than through the chimney- Heather Morris
He had suffered the same ordeal upon his arrival at Auschwitz, in April 1942. The Nazis had ordered all of Slovakia's Jewish families to surrender one male to work in the war effort. Sokolov's father was elderly and his brother had children, so he volunteered.
His number, 32407, was tattooed by a man named Pepan, who later made Sokolov his assistant. When Pepan disappeared — presumed murdered — Sokolov became the camp's tetovierer.
The job gave him some protection, but Sokolov knew he lived in the shadow of death, just like any other prisoner.
Josef Mengele, the Nazi infamous for human experimentation, would stalk the lines of new arrivals, looking for subjects. He often threatened to take Sokolov, but the camp commandant wouldn't allow it.
"Nobody in Auschwitz or Birkenau put the fear of God in [Sokolov] quite like Mengele did," Morris said. "He was the one person he truly feared."
One day, Mengele chose the tattooist's assistant, a man named Leon, for his experiments.
"He didn't kill him," Morris said, "but he castrated him."
Accusations of collaboration
When Morris met Sokolov to discuss telling his story, he had one requirement: the writer could not be Jewish.
He feared accusations of collaboration, and worried a Jewish writer would have preconceptions about what was right and wrong, Morris said.
He asked what she knew about the Holocaust.
"My small-town New Zealand education really hadn't given me much, and so to him that made me perfect."
Morris thinks his fears were unfounded.
"[I've] spoken at synagogues from London to Sydney and beyond, and nobody's even hinted that he should have thought that way."
Life and love in Auschwitz
When Sokolov met Furman, "an 18-year-old girl dressed in rags and her head shaven, he knew in that second that he could never love another," Morris said.
Furman, a Slovakian Jew who bore the number 34902, was being tattooed for the second time — her first one had faded. Three months at Auschwitz-Birkenau left her with little hope.
"She saw no reason to get to know him, initially. To her, they were never going to leave that place, other than through the chimney."
But Sokolov wouldn't give up on her. He "knew sooner or later they were going to leave there," said Morris.
It was the humanity that Lale saw time and time again ... that's what kept them all going- Heather Morris
One of Sokolov's privileges was that the guard assigned to him regularly let him wander freely.
He used that freedom to set up a black market.
Women who sorted the belongings of the dead would smuggle him valuables, which would otherwise have gone to the Nazis. He traded with local villagers — who came to the camps to work — for food and supplies, which he gave to Furman and other prisoners.
"In a funny kind of way, Birkenau was a community," Morris said.
"It was the humanity that Lale saw time and time again ... that's what kept them all going."
The truth behind the fiction
Morris's publisher wanted her to write a memoir, but there was one problem: she never met Furman.
"If I was to write it as a memoir or a biography … I could not write dialogue. I could not weave this beautiful love story into all those facts that we know were going on in that camp at the time," she said.
Morris chose instead to write a semi-fictionalized novel, based on their story.
Researchers verified Sokolov's account, and Morris relied on his memories to tell Furman's story.
Morris chose the format "because it enabled me to write a story which is just not about facts and figures and numbers," she explained.
"It's about two people."
In late January 1945, Furman was sent on a death march.
"He watched her go, with all the other girls and women who were in Birkenau, taken out in one day," Morris said.
Days later, Sokolov was transferred to a camp in Austria, just a few hours before the Russians liberated Auschwitz. After another transfer to a camp near Vienna, he decided to escape. He tunnelled his way out, and ran.
To reach home, he had to cross the River Danube, a site of heavy fighting. The current was too strong, so he floated "like a log," while the Russians and Germans exchanged fire from either bank.
"He literally floated underneath the crossfire of these two warring armies," Morris said.
Barely stopping at his home in Slovakia, he took a horse and cart to the capital Bratislava, searching for Furman. He knew trains brought refugees to the city every day.
He would walk up and down the platform, asking every woman: "'Were you in Birkenau, were you in Auschwitz, did you know Gita?' and they all said 'No.'"
Furman's death march
Furman had marched through Polish winter for two days before she and two others made a decision.
Morris described their thought process: "We can keep marching, and as we fall we'll be shot, or we can run ... and if we make it, we make it. If we get shot in the back, what does it matter?"
They ran, and made it to a village where they found shelter. Weeks later, she made it to Bratislava, where Sokolov was searching.
Walking one day, she saw his horse and cart plodding down the street. She stepped out into the road, stopping the horse — and Sokolov — in their tracks.
Sokolov climbed down and dropped to his knees.
"Marry me," he said.
Sharing his testimony
Sokolov and Furman married. In the years that followed, they left Europe for Australia. They settled in Melbourne's Jewish community, raising a family. Their friends knew their story, but Furman didn't like to talk about it.
Furman died in 2003, aged 78. Sokolov decided it was time to tell their story, hoping his testimony would stop history repeating.
"He would say to me: 'Just do one thing good every day, if you can,'" Morris recalled.
In turn, she often asked what his good deed of the day was.
"I take the doggies for a walk," he once told her, "and I find a stranger and I smile at them. And then I feel better.'"
Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Karin Marley.