The frail old man sitting in his study in his Melbourne home opposite Heather Morris had a big secret to share – the keys which unlocked his story lay in the faded but legible strings of numbers inscribed in his arm: 32407.
With over twenty years of experience in the social work department at Monash Medical Centre, Morris was used, she says, “to talking to people during a time of tragedy and trauma.”
But little did she realise how big and harrowing a story Lale Sokolov had in him when he opened the door to her one morning in December 2003.
Then 87, the Slovakian Jewish immigrant was recently bereaved – his wife Gita had died just eight weeks earlier.
Morris, an aspiring screenwriter with a passion for storytelling, had met Lale’s son Gary through a mutual friend who said that Lale had a huge tale to tell.
So, intrigued, she came to meet him. “He opened the door to me and before I got a chance to say anything, he just said come, and turned and walked away. I followed him. And for the next two hours I sat and listened.”
An extraordinary tale slowly emerged, buried under sometimes incoherent, rambling, “beautiful little vignettes” told in a thick European accent - he spoke Hungarian, Russian, German, Polish, Slovakian.
This frail, hunched over old man in front of her had, it turns out, once been a strapping young man called Ludwig Eisenberg, born in 1916 in Slovakia.
At just 26, in April 1942, he was sent to the infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz where he became first the assistant to the camp’s chief tattooist Pepan – responsible for the macabre task of inscribing identification numbers onto thousands of prisoners – and later chief tattooist, or Tatowierer, as Lale was known by his bosses in the political wing of the SS.
Lale chose the job as his means of survival. He tattooed thousands of prisoners over the next years, including a young inmate from Birkenau called Gisela Fuhrmannova — Gita.
The young couple would end up falling in love, meeting again after the war and marrying before eventually moving to Melbourne where their only son Gary was born in 1961. Here, they rebuilt their lives and cherished their good fortune over the next fifty years.
But for Lale, Morris says, the past kept demanding to be told; all its horrors (among other things, he was taunted by Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death himself, and once was forced to examine bloody, defouled fresh corpses in a crematorium soon after a gassing), and its joys – primarily meeting and marrying the love of his life, Gita.
That morning, he told Morris bits and pieces of his tale.
She listened, spellbound and horrified. “He kept saying, I was Tatowierer, Tätowierer (Tattooist). Afterwards, I drove around the corner and just sat there trying to absorb what I was hearing and how to process it.”
When Gita died in 2003, Lale, she says, set out to find someone to tell his story. She turned out to be who he was looking for - someone with no Jewish ancestry or connection to the Holocaust – though he only committed to the idea of a book after three of so months of weekly meetings at his home, after trust and friendship had been seeded.
Morris spent the next three years talking to Lale – he died in 2006 - eventually creating a screenplay that she submitted to a local film production company who optioned the script.
She later entered it in international screenwriting competitions where it garnered acclaim.
Encouraged by the glowing reader feedback, she turned it into a novel and then self-published it through a crowdfunding campaign.
A Melbourne publishing firm picked it up, and “the rest is history”, she says. It was released recently in the UK, where it’s already on bestseller lists. There is talk of a movie, too
So what was Lale’s purpose in revealing himself so publicly after 50 years of silence? Multiple reasons, says Morris: as a tribute to Gita and their great love story, to achieve a sense of catharsis (“it was a kind of unburdening”), and most importantly, as a means of bearing witness.
In his classic Holocaust work The Drowned and the Saved, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote that "Auschwitz left its mark on me, but it did not remove my desire to live. On the contrary, that experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness, that such a thing should never occur again."
Lale, Morris says, was driven precisely by this motive. “He was aware of the rise of anti-Semitism around the world and said, maybe if they read my story it won’t happen again.”
And like Levi who drew a clear line between good and evil, guilt and culpability, in stating his belief that confusing murderers with the victims is a “moral disease”, Lale’s conscience was clear.
“He absolutely felt that no one had any right to say he was a collaborator. Did he work for the SS? Yes, but so did many. If you worked in the camps, you were working for the SS. Everyone was.”
As far as Morris could discern, none of his old friends – all of whom have known his story for decades – bore him any ill-will, not even a 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor called Lotte, now based in Sydney, whom he tattooed in the camp and whom he met again in Australia later.
“Her tattoo is massive, way bigger than others, and when she saw him later, in Australia, she would give him a belt around his head because it was so big and ugly with huge numbers on her arm. But he said he did it that way because he wanted it to take a longer time than usual as he wanted to find out what was going on back in Slovakia.”
Lale’s burden of guilt, Morris says, centred around his role in scarring hundreds of thousands of people; so too in his inability to save others in the camp.
A few months before he died, he suddenly asked her to take him to Auschwitz: he wanted, he told her, to stand on a step that is still there leading into one of the crematoria and say sorry.
Morris gets emotional. “It was August and I knew it would have been stinking hot there, and I said, let’s go when it’s cooler, in autumn. But he died in October, of a massive stroke at home one day.”
So Morris will be making her own pilgrimage next March when she goes to Auschwitz as part of the March of the Living, an annual educational program bringing people from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust. She will bring with her a piece of Lale in some form, so that he ends up making the journey after all. “I’ve given a lot of thought to how to approach that day. I’ll find something of him to take.”
The Tattooist of Aushwitz by Heather Morris is available February 1 from Bonnier Australia Publishing, (RRP $29.99).