Lale Sokolov was searching for someone special in December 2003. His beloved wife Gita had passed away three months earlier and, without her, he was weary and lost. From the moment he first met her while they were inmates in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sokolov’s life had been about keeping Gita safe and loving her well. But in his grief, he found himself compelled to do something he had never dared before – share their story.
After 60 years, the ‘Tattooist of Auschwitz’ was ready to talk about it all – his role as the Tätowierer, his dealings with ‘Dr Death’ Josef Mengele, and the atrocities he witnessed daily. But most of all, he was ready to talk about finding the love of his life in a concentration camp where an estimated 1.1 million people met their death. He desperately wanted the world to learn from what he and Gita had survived.
So, in the hardest days of his twilight years, Sokolov set out to find a storyteller. He had only two criteria: the person had to be unfamiliar with Jewish culture and, most importantly, they had to be able to work fast because as soon as he was done he was “going home to his wife”. In aspiring scriptwriter Heather Morris, Sokolov found not only his storyteller but his champion. Over the hundreds of hours they spent unravelling the darkest moments of his life, they forged a friendship that took them by surprise and left them forever changed.
Morris may not have seemed the obvious choice to tell Sokolov’s story. She was an office manager in a Victorian social work department and, although she was a budding scriptwriter, she had no formal interview training and only a passing interest in history. She heard about Sokolov through a friend of a friend who knew she was on the lookout for a story. If you ask her why Sokolov chose her, she will tell you that it was her unfamiliarity with Jewish culture that appealed to him. But talking to her, you can’t help but wonder if it was her uncommon compassion and her ability to listen that drew him to her.
When they first began meeting, Sokolov was deep in mourning. His shoulders stooped, his head hung low and he would shuffle around. He would continually tell Morris to “Hurry up, I need to be with Gita”. Yet as time wore on and he opened up, she saw him start to transform emotionally and physically. “Mental experts would say ‘He unburdened’,” she says. “He shared the horror of his experiences and, by sharing that, it gave him relief to know that somebody else knew his story. He wasn’t carrying it alone. You could physically see the changes in him.” As the trust between them grew, they developed a deep bond of friendship. And although he still mourned his wife, Morris began to glimpse the playful man underneath the grief.
Never one to be afraid of being the centre of attention, Sokolov loved the idea of his story becoming a movie and became obsessed with talking about who would play his part. Although he had initially wanted to cast Brad Pitt, it was on an outing with Morris to see The Notebook that Sokolov found his leading actor. “As soon as Ryan Gosling came on screen he stood up in the theatre, turned around to everybody and said, ‘That’s me. That’s me. He’s the one. Don’t you think he looks like me?’” Who would play Gita? “Natalie Portman. No question about it. To him she was Gita, no-one else.” With Morris’s help, Sokolov had released the shame of his past and was proudly embracing himself as the hero of his own story.
Sadly, Sokolov didn’t live to see his celebrity counterpart on the big screen. In 2006, three days after his 90th birthday, he suffered the stroke that would eventually take him home to his beloved Gita. It was then, over a few quiet hours while he was unconscious, that Morris made her dear friend a solemn vow. “The last thing I said to him was that, ‘I will never stop trying to tell yours and Gita’s story. Never.’”
Over the following decade Morris tried to have her screenplay made into a film – entering it into competitions where she would receive encouraging feedback but never getting over that final hurdle into production. It wasn’t until a friend suggested she should turn it into a novel that Morris saw traction. At her son’s insistence, she launched a Kickstarter campaign and was eventually picked up by her editor at publisher Echo. The Tattooist of Auschwitz was published in Australia in January this year.
Morris is determined to carry her friend’s legacy forward, this year visiting Auschwitz- Birkenau for the first time in his honour as a guest speaker for Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland. “While I’m looking forward to it at one level, another part of me is terrified of how I’m going to handle seeing firsthand what I’ve heard.” For over a decade, she immersed herself in the murky depths of the Holocaust, but she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. “I suspect there are a lot more stories like this that are just not told. And they should be because that’s where we get our optimism from.”
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is published by Echo