copyright Lali and Gary Sokolov (2018 to eternity)
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. You may copy and forward
Take this all with a grain of Manishevitz salt...because it didn't happen this way
FIRST SEE THIS LINKNEWS ALERT! "The Australian" Dec. 6 - by Fiona Harari - HEADLINE: " The Tattooist of Auschwitz is distorting, Holocaust historians say'' https://northwardho.blogspot.com/2018/12/scanned-pages-1-and-2-from-australian.html
Lale tries not to look up. He reaches out to take the piece of paper being handed to him. He must transfer the five digits onto the girl who holds it. There is already a number there but it has faded. He pushes the needle into her left arm, making a 3, trying to be gentle. Blood oozes. But the needle hasn’t gone deep enough and he has to trace the number again. She doesn’t flinch at the pain Lale knows he’s inflicting. They’ve been warned – say nothing, do nothing. He wipes away the blood and rubs green ink into the wound. ‘Hurry up!’ Pepan whispers. Lale is taking too long. Tattooing the arms of men is one thing; defiling the bodies of young girls is horrifying. Glancing up, Lale sees a man in a white coat slowly walking up the row of girls. Every now and then he stops to inspect the face and body of a terrified young woman. Eventually he reaches Lale. While Lale holds the girl’s arm as gently as he can, the man takes her face in his hand and turns it roughly this way and that. Lale looks up into the frightened eyes. Her lips move in readiness to speak. Lale squeezes her arm tightly to stop her. She looks at him and he mouths, ‘Shh.’ The man in the white coat releases her face and walks away. ‘Well done,’ he whispers as he sets about tattooing the remaining four digits – 4 9 0 2. When he has finished, he holds on to her arm for a moment longer than necessary, looking again into her eyes. He forces a small smile. She returns a smaller one. Her eyes, however, dance before him. Looking into them his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, almost threatening to burst out of his chest. He looks down at the ground and it sways beneath him. Another piece of paper is thrust at him. ‘Hurry up, Lale!’ Pepan whispers urgently. When he looks up again she is gone.
Lale rattles across the countryside, keeping his head up and himself to himself. The 24-year-old sees no point in getting to know the man beside him, who occasionally nods off against his shoulder; Lale doesn’t push him away. He is just one among countless young men stuffed into wagons designed to transport livestock. Having been given no idea where they were headed, Lale dressed in his usual attire: a pressed suit, clean white shirt and tie. Always dress to impress. He tries to assess the dimensions of his confinement. The wagon is about two and a half metres wide. But he can’t see the end to gauge its length. He attempts to count the number of men on this journey with him. But with so many heads bobbing up and down, he eventually gives up. He doesn’t know how many wagons there are. His back and legs ache. His face itches. The stubble reminds him that he hasn’t bathed or shaved since he boarded two days ago. He is feeling less and less himself. When the men try to engage him in conversation, he responds with words of encouragement, trying to turn their fear into hope. We stand in shit but let us not drown in it. Abusive remarks are muttered at him for his appearance and manner. Accusations of hailing from an upper class. ‘Now look where it’s got you.’ He tries to shrug the words off and meet the glares with smiles. Who am I trying to kid? I’m as scared as everyone else. A young man locks eyes with Lale and pushes through the scrum of bodies towards him. Some men shove him on his way through. It’s only your own space if you make it yours. ‘How can you be so calm?’ the young man says. ‘They had rifles. The bastards pointed rifles at us and forced us into this ... this cattle train.’ Lale smiles at him. ‘Not what I was expecting either.’ ‘Where do you think we’re going?’ ‘It doesn’t matter. Just remember, we are here to keep our families safe at home.’ ‘But what if ... ?’ ‘Don’t “what if”. I don’t know, you don’t know, none of us knows. Let’s just do as we’re told.’ ‘Should we try and take them when we stop, since we outnumber them?’ The young man’s pale face is pinched with confused aggression. His balled-up hands box pathetically in front of him. ‘We have fists, they have rifles – who do you think is going to win that fight?’ The young man returns to silence. His shoulder is wedged into Lale’s chest and Lale can smell oil and sweat in his hair. His hands drop and hang limply by his side. ‘I’m Aron,’ he says. ‘Lale.’ Others around them tune in to their conversation, raising their heads towards the two men before lapsing back into silent reveries, sinking deep into their own thoughts. What they all share is fear. And youth. And their religion. Lale tries to keep his mind off theorising about what might lie ahead. He has been told he is being taken to work for the Germans, and that is what he is planning to do. He thinks of his family back home. Safe. He has made the sacrifice, has no regrets. He would make it again and again to keep his beloved family at home, together. Every hour or so, it seems, people ask him similar questions. Wearying, Lale begins to answer, ‘Wait and see.’ He is perplexed as to why the questions are directed to him. He has no special knowledge. Yes, he wears a suit and tie, but that’s the only visible difference between him and the next man. We’re all in the same filthy boat. In the crowded wagon they can’t sit, let alone lie down. Two buckets substitute for toilets. As they fill, a fight breaks out as men try to get away from the stench. The buckets are knocked over, spilling their contents. Lale clings to his suitcase, hoping that with the money and clothes he has, he might be able to buy himself out from wherever they are headed, or at the very least buy himself into a safe job. Maybe there’ll be work where I can use my languages. He feels lucky to have found his way to the side of the wagon. Small gaps in the slats provide him with glimpses of the passing countryside. Snatched breaths of fresh air keep the rising tide of nausea at bay. It might be springtime, but the days are filled with rain and heavy cloud. Occasionally they pass fields ablaze with spring flowers and Lale smiles to himself. Flowers. He learned from a young age, from his mother, that women love them. When would be the next time he could give a girl flowers? He takes them in, their 6 brilliant colours flashing before his eyes, whole fields of poppies dancing in the breeze, a scarlet mass. He vows that the next flowers he gives to someone he will pick himself. It has never occurred to him that they grow wild in such large numbers. His mother had a few in her garden but she never picked them and brought them inside. He starts a list in his head of things to do ‘When I get home ...’ Another fight breaks out. Scuffling. Yells. Lale can’t see what is going on, but he feels the squirming and pushing of bodies. Then there is silence. And from the gloom: the words, ‘You’ve killed him.’ ‘Lucky bastard,’ someone mutters. Poor bastard. My life is too good to end in this stinkhole. • There are many stops on the journey, some lasting minutes, some hours, always outside a town or village. Occasionally Lale catches a glimpse of the station names as they speed through: Ostrava, a town he knows is close to the border of Czechoslovakia and Poland; Pszczyna, confirming they are then indeed in Poland. The unknown question: where will they stop? Lale spends most of the time on the journey lost in thoughts about his life in Bratislava: his job, his apartment, his friends – his female friends in particular. The train stops again. It is pitch-black; clouds block out the moon and stars completely. Does the dark portend their future? Things are as they are. What I can see, feel, hear and smell right now. He sees only men like himself, young and on a journey into the unknown. He hears the grumbling of empty stomachs and the rasping of dry windpipes. He smells piss and shit and the odour of bodies too long unwashed. The men take advantage of not being thrown around to rest without the need to push and shove for a piece of turf. More than one head now rests on Lale. Loud noises come from a few wagons back, gradually creeping closer. The men there have had enough, and are going to attempt an escape. The sounds of men throwing themselves against the wooden sides of the wagon, and the banging of what must be one of the shit buckets, rouses everyone. Before long every wagon erupts, attacked from within. ‘Help us or get out of the way,’ a large man screams at Lale as he throws himself against the side. ‘Don’t waste your energy,’ Lale replies. ‘If these walls were going to be breached, don’t you think a cow would have done it by now?’ Several men stop their efforts, turning angrily towards him. They process his comment. The train lurches forward. Maybe those in charge have decided movement will stop the unrest. The wagons settle down. Lale closes his eyes. • Lale had returned to his parents’ home, in Krompachy, Slovakia, following the news that Jews in small towns were being rounded up and transported to work for the Germans. He knew Jews were no longer allowed to work and that their businesses had been confiscated. For nearly four weeks he helped around the house, fixing things with his father and brother, building new beds for his young nephews who had outgrown their cribs. His sister was the only family member earning an income, as a seamstress. She had to travel to and from work in secret, before dawn and after dark. Her boss was prepared to take the risk for her best employee. One evening she returned home with a poster her boss had been asked to put in the shop window. It demanded that each Jewish family hand over a child aged eighteen or older to work for the German government. The whispers, the rumours about what had been happening in other towns, finally came to Krompachy. It seemed that the Slovakian government was acquiescing further to Hitler, giving him whatever he wanted. The poster warned in bold type that if any family had such a child and did not surrender them, the whole family would be taken to a concentration camp. Max, Lale’s older brother, immediately said he would go, but Lale would not hear of it. Max had a wife and two young children. He was needed at home. Lale reported to the local government department in Krompachy, offering himself for transportation. The officials he dealt with had been his friends – they’d gone to school together and knew each other’s families. Lale was told to make his way to Prague, report to the appropriate authorities and await further instructions. • After two days the cattle train stops again. This time there is a great commotion outside. Dogs are barking, orders are yelled in German, bolts are released, wagon doors clang open. ‘Get down from the train, leave your possessions!’ shout the soldiers. ‘Rush, rush, hurry up! Leave your things on the ground!’ Being on the far side of the wagon, Lale is one of the last to leave. Approaching the door, he sees the body of the man killed in the skirmish. Briefly closing his eyes, he acknowledges the man’s death with a quick prayer. Then he leaves the wagon, but brings with him the stench – covering his clothes, his skin, every fibre of his being. Landing on bended knees, he puts his hands on the gravel and stays crouching for several moments. Gasping. Exhausted. Painfully thirsty. Slowly rising, he looks around at the hundreds of startled men who are trying to comprehend the scene in front of them. Dogs snap and bite at those who are slow to move. Many stumble, the muscles in their legs refusing to work after days without use. Suitcases, bundles of books, meagre possessions are snatched from those unwilling to surrender them or who simply don’t understand the orders. They are then hit by a rifle or fist. Lale studies the men in uniform. Black and threatening. The twin lightning bolts on the collar of their jackets tell Lale who he is dealing with. The SS. Under different circumstances he might appreciate the tailoring, the fineness of the cloth, the sharpness of the cut. He places his suitcase on the ground. How will they know this one is mine? With a shiver, he realises that it’s unlikely he will see the case or its contents again. He touches his hand to his heart, to the money hidden in his jacket pocket. He looks to the heavens, breathes in the fresh, cool air, and reminds himself that at least he is outdoors. A gunshot rings out and Lale jumps. Before him stands an SS officer, weapon pointed skywards. ‘Move!’ Lale glances back at the emptied train. Clothing blows away and books flap open. Several trucks arrive and small boys clamber out. They snatch up the abandoned belongings and throw them into the trucks. A heaviness settles between Lale’s shoulder blades. Sorry, Mumma, they have your books. The men trudge towards the looming dirty pink brick buildings, with picture windows. Trees line the entrance, flush with new spring growth. As Lale walks through open iron gates he looks up at the German words wrought from the metal.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
Work will make you free.
He doesn’t know where he is, or what work he is expected to do, but the idea that it will set him free has the feeling of a sick joke. SS, rifles, dogs, his belongings taken – this he’d been unable to imagine. ‘Where are we?’ Lale turns to see Aron at his side. ‘The end of the line, I’d say.’ Aron’s face falls. ‘Just do as you’re told, you’ll be fine.’ Lale knows he doesn’t sound terribly convincing. He gives Aron a quick smile, which is returned. Silently, Lale tells himself to take his own advice: Do as you’re told. And always observe. Once inside the compound, the men are corralled into straight lines. At the head of Lale’s row is an inmate with a beaten face sitting at a small table. He wears a jacket and trousers of blue and white vertical stripes, with a green triangle on his chest. Behind him stands an SS officer, rifle at the ready. Clouds roll in. Distant thunder claps. The men wait. A senior officer, accompanied by an escort of soldiers, arrives at the front of the group. He has a square jaw, thin lips, and eyes hooded by bushy black brows. His uniform is plain in comparison to those guarding him. No lightning bolts. His demeanour shows that he’s clearly the man in charge. ‘Welcome to Auschwitz.’ Lale hears the words, through a mouth that barely moves, in disbelief. Having been forced from his home and transported like an animal, now surrounded by heavily armed SS, he is now being welcomed – welcomed! ‘I am Commandant Rudolf Hoess. I am in charge here at Auschwitz. The gates you just walked through say: “Work will make you free”. This is your first lesson, your only lesson. Work hard. Do as you are told and you will go free. Disobey and there will be consequences. You will be processed here, and then you will be taken to your new home: Auschwitz Two – Birkenau.’ The commandant scans their faces. He begins to say something else but is interrupted by a large roll of thunder. He looks skyward, mutters a few words under his breath, flicks a dismissive hand at the men and turns to walk away. The performance is over. His security presence hurries off after him. A clumsy display, but still intimidating. The processing begins. Lale watches as the first prisoners are shoved forward to the tables. He’s too far away to hear the short exchanges, can only watch as the seated men in pyjamas write down details and hand each prisoner a small receipt. Finally it is Lale’s turn. He has to provide his name, address, occupation and parents’ names. The weathered man at the table writes Lale’s answers in a neat, looping script and passes him a piece of paper with a number on it. Throughout, the man never raises his head to meet Lale’s eyes. Lale looks at the number: 32407. He shuffles along with the flow of men towards another set of tables, where another group of striped prisoners bear the green triangle, and more SS stand by. His desire for water threatens to overwhelm him. Thirsty and exhausted, he is surprised when the piece of paper is yanked from his hand. An SS officer pulls off Lale’s jacket, rips his shirtsleeve and pushes his left forearm flat on the table. He stares in disbelief as the numbers 32407 are stabbed into his skin, one after the other by the prisoner. The length of wood with a needle embedded in it moves quickly and painfully. Then the man takes a rag dipped in green ink and rubs it roughly over Lale’s wound. The tattooing has taken only seconds, but Lale’s shock makes time stand still. He grasps his arm, staring at the number. How can someone do this to another human being? He wonders if for the rest of his life, be it short or long, he will be defined by this moment, this irregular number: 32407. A prod from a rifle butt breaks Lale’s trance. He collects his jacket from the ground and stumbles forward, following the men in front into a large brick building with bench seating along the walls. It reminds him of the gymnasium at the school in Prague where he slept for five days before beginning his journey here. ‘Strip.’ ‘Faster, faster.’ The SS bark out orders that the majority of the men cannot understand. Lale translates for those nearby, who pass the word along. ‘Leave your clothes on the bench. They will be here after you’ve had your shower.’ Soon the group are removing trousers and shirts, jackets and shoes, folding their filthy clothes and placing them neatly on the benches. Lale is cheered at the prospect of water but knows he will probably not see his clothes again, nor the money inside them. He takes off his clothes and places them on the bench, but outrage threatens to overwhelm him. From his trouser pocket he removes a slim packet of matches, a reminder of past pleasures, and steals a glance at the nearest officer. The man is looking away. Lale strikes a match. This might be the final act of his own free will. He holds the match to the lining of his jacket, covers it with his trousers and hurries to join the line of men at the showers. Behind him, within seconds, he hears screams of ‘Fire!’ Lale looks back, sees naked men pushing and shoving to get away as an SS officer attempts to beat out the flames. He hasn’t yet reached the showers but finds himself shivering. What have I done? He’s just spent several days telling everyone around him to keep their heads down, do as they’re told, don’t antagonise anyone, and now he’s gone and lit a bloody fire inside a building. He has little doubt what would happen if someone pointed him out as the arsonist. Stupid. Stupid. In the shower block, he settles himself, breathes deeply. Hundreds of shivering men stand shoulder to shoulder as cold water rains down on them. They tilt their heads back and drink it in desperately, despite its rankness. Many try to lessen their embarrassment by covering their genitals with their hands. Lale washes the sweat, grime and stink from his body and hair. Water hisses through the pipes and hammers the floor. When it ceases, the doors to the changing room reopen, and without command they walk back to what has now replaced their clothes – old Russian army uniforms and boots. ‘Before you dress you must visit the barber,’ a smirking SS officer tells the men. ‘Outside – hurry.’ Once again, the men fall into lines. They move towards the prisoner standing ready with a razor. When it is Lale’s turn, he sits on the chair with his back straight and his head held high. He watches the SS officers walk the length of the line, assaulting the naked prisoners with the ends of their weapons, offering insults and cruel laughter. Lale sits straighter and lifts his head higher as the hair on his head is reduced to stubble, not flinching when the razor nicks his scalp. A shove in the back by an officer indicates that he is done. He follows the line back into the shower room, where he joins the search for clothing and wooden shoes of the right size. What is there is dirty and stained, but he manages to find shoes that more or less fit and hopes the Russian uniform he grabs will do. Once dressed, he leaves the building as instructed. It is getting dark. He walks through the rain, one of countless men, for what seems like a long time. thickening mud makes it difficult for him to lift his feet. But he trudges on determinedly. Some men struggle or fall to their hands and knees and are beaten until they get back up. If they do not, they are shot. Lale tries to separate the heavy, sodden uniform from his skin. It rubs and chafes, and the smell of wet wool and dirt brings him back to the cattle train. Lale looks to the heavens, trying to swallow as much rain as he can. The sweet taste is the best thing he’s had in days, the only thing he’s had in days, his thirst compounding his weakness, blurring his vision. He gulps it down. Cupping his hands, he slurps wildly. In the distance he sees spotlights surrounding a vast area. His semi-delirious state makes them seem like beacons, sparkling, dancing in the rain, showing him the way home. Calling, Come to me. I will provide shelter, warmth and nourishment. Keep walking. But as he walks through gates, these ones bearing no message, offering no deal, no promise of freedom in exchange for toil, Lale realises the sparkling mirage has gone. He’s in another prison. Beyond this yard, disappearing into the darkness, is a further compound. The tops of the fences are lined with razor wire. Up in the lookouts Lale sees SS pointing rifles in his direction. Lightning hits a fence nearby. They are electrified. The thunder is not loud enough to drown out the sound of a shot, another man fallen. ‘We made it.’ Lale turns to see Aron pushing his way towards him. Drenched, bedraggled. But alive. ‘Yeah, looks like we’re home. You look a sight.’ ‘You haven’t seen yourself. Consider me a mirror.’ ‘No thanks.’ ‘What happens now?’ says Aron, sounding like a child. • Going with the steady flow of men, they each show their tattooed arm to an SS officer standing outside a building, who records the number on a clipboard. After a forceful shove in the back, Lale and Aron find themselves in Block 7, a large hut with triple bunks down one wall. Dozens of men are forced into the building. They scramble and shove each other out of the way to lay claim to a space. If they are lucky or aggressive enough they might share with only one or two others. Luck isn’t on Lale’s side. He and Aron climb up onto a top-level bunk, already occupied by two other prisoners. Having had no food for days, there isn’t much fight left in them. As best he can, Lale curls up onto the straw-filled sack that passes for a mattress. He pushes his hands against his stomach in an attempt to quell the cramps invading his guts. Several men call out to their guards, ‘We need food.’ The reply comes back: ‘You’ll get something in the morning.’ ‘We’ll all be dead from starvation by morning,’ says someone in the back of the block. ‘And at peace,’ a hollow voice adds. ‘These mattresses have got hay in them,’ someone else says. ‘Maybe we should continue to act like cattle and eat that.’ Snatches of quiet laughter. No response from the officer. And then, from deep in the dormitory, a hesitant, ‘Mooooooo Laughter. Quiet, but real. The officer, present but invisible, doesn’t interrupt, and eventually the men fall asleep, stomachs rumbling. • It’s still dark when Lale wakes, needing to take a piss. He scrambles over his sleeping companions, down to the floor, and feels his way to the back of the block, thinking it might be the safest place to relieve himself. Approaching, he hears voices: Slovak and German. He is relieved to see that there are facilities, albeit crude, for them to shit. Long ditches run behind the building with planks of wood placed over them. Three prisoners are sitting across the ditch, shitting and talking quietly to each other. From the other end of the building, Lale sees two SS approaching in the semi-darkness, smoking, laughing, their rifles hung loosely down their backs. The flickering perimeter floodlights make disturbing shadows of them and Lale can’t make out what they are saying. His bladder is full but he hesitates. In unison, the officers flick their cigarettes up into the air, whip their rifles around, and open fire. The bodies of the three who were taking a shit are thrown back into the ditch. Lale’s breath catches in his throat. He presses his back against the building as the officers pass him. He catches the profile of one of them – a boy, just a bloody kid. As they disappear into the darkness, Lale makes a vow to himself. I will live to leave this place. I will walk out a free man. If there is a hell, I will see these murderers burn in it. He thinks of his family back in Krompachy and hopes that his presence here is at least saving them from a similar fate. Lale relieves himself and returns to his bunk. ‘The shots,’ says Aron, ‘what were they?’ ‘I didn’t see.’ Aron swings his leg over Lale on his way to the ground. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘A piss.’ Lale reaches to the side of the bed, clutches Aron’s hand. ‘Hold on.’ ‘Why?’ ‘You heard the shots,’ says Lale. ‘Just hold on until the morning.’ Aron says nothing as he clambers back into bed and lies down, his two fists curled against his crotch in fear and defiance. • His father had been picking up a customer from the train station. Mr Sheinberg prepared to lift himself elegantly into the carriage as Lale’s father placed his fine leather luggage on the seat opposite. Where had he travelled from? Prague? Bratislava? Vienna perhaps? Wearing an expensive woollen suit, his shoes freshly shined, he smiled and spoke briefly to Lale’s father as he climbed up front. His father encouraged the horse to move on. Like most of the other men Lale’s father ferried around with his taxi service, Mr Sheinberg was returning home from important business. Lale wanted to be like him rather than like his father. Mr Sheinberg did not have his wife with him that day. Lale loved to glimpse Mrs Sheinberg and the other women who travelled in his father’s carriages, their small hands encased in white gloves, their elegant pearl earrings matching their necklaces. He loved the beautiful women in fine clothing and jewels who sometimes accompanied the important men. The only advantage of helping his father came from opening the carriage door for them, taking their hand as he assisted them down, inhaling their scent, dreaming of the lives they led. 261 AUTHOR’S NOTE I ’m in the lounge of the home of an elderly man. I don’t know him well yet, but I’ve quickly come to know his dogs, Tootsie and Bam Bam – one the size of a pony and the other smaller than my cat. Thankfully I’ve won them over and right now they are asleep. I look away for a moment. I have to tell him. ‘You do know I’m not Jewish?’ An hour has passed since we met. The elderly man in the chair opposite me gives an impatient but not unfriendly snort. He looks away, folds his fingers. His legs are crossed and the free foot raps a silent beat. His eyes look towards the window and the open space. ‘Yes,’ he says finally, turning to me with a smile. ‘That’s why I want you.’ I relax a little. Maybe I am in the right place after all. ‘So,’ he says, as though he is about to share a joke, ‘tell me what you know about Jews.’ Seven-branch candlesticks come to mind as I scramble for something to say. ‘Do you know any Jews?’ I come up with one. ‘I work with a girl named Bella. She’s Jewish, I think.’ I expect disdain but instead receive enthusiasm. ‘Good!’ he says. I’ve passed another test. Next comes the first instruction. ‘You will have no preconceptions about what I tell you.’ He pauses, as though searching for words. ‘I don’t want any personal baggage brought to my story.’ I shift uncomfortably. ‘Maybe there is some.’ He leans forward, unsteady. He catches the table with a hand. The table is unsteady and its uneven leg smacks against the floor, causing an echo. The dogs wake up, startled. I swallow. ‘My mother’s maiden name was Schwartfeger. Her family were German.’ He relaxes. ‘We all come from somewhere,’ he says. ‘Yes, but I’m a Kiwi. My mother’s family have lived in New Zealand for over a hundred years.’ ‘Immigrants.’ ‘Yes.’ He sits back, relaxed now. ‘How quickly can you write?’ he asks. I’m thrown off balance. What exactly is he asking here? ‘Well, it depends on what I’m writing.’ ‘I need you to work quickly. I don’t have much time.’ Panic. I had deliberately not brought any recording or writing materials with me to this first meeting. I’d been invited to hear and consider writing his life story. For now I just wanted to listen. ‘How much time do you have?’ I ask him. ‘A little while only.’ I’m confused. ‘Do you have to be somewhere soon?’ ‘Yes,’ he says, his gaze again returning to the open window. ‘I need to be with Gita.’
AUTHOR SPEAKS HERE
I never met Gita. It was her death and Lale’s need to join her that pushed him to tell his story. He wanted it to be recorded so, in his words, ‘It would never happen again.’ After that first meeting, I visited Lale two or three times a week. The story took three years to untangle. I had to earn his trust, and it took time before he was willing to embark on the deep self-scrutiny that parts of his story required. We had become friends – no, more than friends; our lives became entwined as he shed the burden of guilt he had carried for over fifty years, the fear that he and Gita might be seen as collaborators of the Nazis. Part of Lale’s burden passed to me as I sat with him at his kitchen table, this dear man with his trembling hands, his quivering voice, his eyes that still moistened 60 after experiencing these most horrifying events in human history. He told his story piecemeal, sometimes slowly, sometimes at bullet-pace and without clear connections between the many, many episodes. But it didn’t matter. It was spellbinding to sit with him, and his two dogs, and listen to what to an uninterested ear might have sounded like the ramblings of an old man. Was it the delightful Eastern European accent? The charm of this old rascal? Was it the twisted story I was starting to make sense of? It was all of these and more.
As the teller of Lale’s story, it became important for me to identify how memory and history sometimes waltz in step and sometimes strain to part, to present not a lesson in history, of which there are many, but a unique lesson in humanity. Lale’s memories were, on the whole, remarkably clear and precise. They matched my research into people, dates and places. Was this a comfort? Getting to know a person for whom such terrible facts had been a lived reality made them all the more horrific. There was no parting of memory and history for this beautiful old man – they waltzed perfectly in step. ''The Tattooist of Auschwitz'' is a story of two ordinary people, living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but their dignity, their names, and their identities, and it is Lale’s account of what they needed to do to survive. Lale lived his life by the motto: ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’
[AND HEATHER WRITES THIS NEW AGE BULLSHIT]: On the morning of his funeral I woke knowing it was not a good day for me, but that it would have been for him. He was now with Gita.
Tattooist of Auschwitz distorting reality, say custodians
The administrators of Auschwitz have warned historical errors in The Tattooist of Auschwitz are distorting wider understanding about Nazi Germany’s biggest concentration camp, saying the best-selling book is “almost without any value as a document”.
Pawel Sawicki, press officer at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, said that while there was no issue with fictionalising the Holocaust in general, “in this case there are too many inaccuracies that in a way distorted the image of Auschwitz as it was”.
“Its mixture of the true story of a person and all those mistakes that are around it are problematic because I believe most of those inaccuracies could have been avoided,” Mr Sawicki said.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz , by Australia-based author Heather Morris, tells of the love story between Lali Sokolov, the camp’s tattooist, and his future wife Gita, whom he met him when she was also imprisoned there. The couple, who have both died, spent their post-war decades in Melbourne.
The book, whose opening scene sees Lali (spelled Lale in the Australian edition) eyeing Gita for the first time when he is forced to re-tattoo a five-digit number on her arm, was Australia’s top fiction title for the first nine months of this year and has reached No 1 on The New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list. Hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold and the book has been widely translated. Plans for a miniseries have been announced and even a musical has been mooted.
While the book is promoted on its Australian cover as being “based on an incredible true story”, Morris said in February: “Ninety-five per cent of it is as it happened, researched and confirmed. What has been fictionalised is where I’ve put Lale and Gita into events where really they weren’t. They weren’t together when the American planes flew over the camps, for example.”
Morris also thanked two people in the book “for their brilliant investigative skills in researching ‘facts’ to ensure history and memory waltzed perfectly in step”.
Now, one of Australia’s leading Holocaust historians has revealed he refused to endorse the book because he was alarmed at its historical blunders. Konrad Kwiet, chief historian to Australia’s War Crimes Commission, was sent a copy of the manuscript last year, before it was published. “From the beginning I was very sceptical,” said Professor Kwiet, resident historian at the Sydney Jewish Museum. He added that as an historian he was not able to appraise fiction. “It’s a sex story of Auschwitz that has very little historical accuracy,” he said.
Bram Presser, whose novel about his grandfather’s Holocaust experiences, The Book of Dirt, won the Christina Stead prize for fiction at this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary awards, said: “I think that the story is extraordinary but I have deep reservations about the telling of it. That people should believe that this is a true representation of the Holocaust is problematic. If you write a Holocaust book you have an ethical responsibility to do proper research, proper fact-checking. Otherwise you are doing Holocaust memory disservice and potentially flaming Holocaust deniers.”
Morris, who interviewed Sokolov over several years, said yesterday: “I have written a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust. I have written Lale’s story.” Asked her reaction to the extent of the fact-checking, she said: “I am surprised it has taken so long.” She refused to comment on errors highlighted in the report.
Previously she has said: “It’s not a memoir. It’s fiction.”
That has failed to prevent criticism from officials at Auschwitz. “I think that it’s an excuse, it’s a very comfortable shield,” Mr Sawicki said. “You can always say, ‘But I am writing fiction’ but the people of this story deserved better.
“Telling the story of a survivor, if it’s based in the real world it should try to get the reality of that world right. We have already had visitors coming here to the memorial and they ask questions about The Tattooist of Auschwitz and they thought they were reading the true story, historically accurate. For us this becomes an issue.”
On Saturday, the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted: “Due to the number of factual errors The Tattooist of Auschwitz cannot be recommended as a valuable position for those who wish to understand the history of the camp. The book is an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document.”
Given the book’s popularity, authorities at Auschwitz have also published the results of an extensive fact-check, worried “that this title will become for many readers a source of knowledge and imaginations about the reality of life in KL Auschwitz”. In the latest issue of its online Memoria magazine, Wanda Witek-Malicka of the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre writes “the reading of the novel verifies the assurance of its factual and documentary character”. Yet there are “numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts”.
The inaccuracies include incorrect information about the cattle train that took Sokolov to Auschwitz from Slovakia in April 1942. “Here she (Morris) probably used the modern online searching engine of railway connections … This error otherwise cannot be explained,” the report says.
A description of prisoners at Auschwitz being gassed in a converted bus “does not find confirmation in any sources”, although movable gas chambers were used elsewhere, while Sokolov could not have obtained penicillin in January 1943 as the drug’s production was still being researched.
Other inaccuracies include an irregular map of Birkenau in the appendix and the inclusion of a long, semi-explicit sexual relationship between a high-ranking SS member and a female prisoner.
“In practice, the possibility … was non-existent,” the report says.
“The reality of the war … has been fictionalised and poetised in the book. The Birkenau camp is also presented as a place where prisoners move about almost freely … The fact that particular sections of the camp were separated with barbed wire, and moving between them is strictly prohibited … is not reflected.”
The article also looks at the date Gita is said to have been taken to Auschwitz and the number tattooed on her arm, and concludes “she was either brought to the camp on a different date or received a different number than that indicated in the book”.
The book opens with a description of Sokolov tattooing the numbers 34902 on his future wife. Some editions, including the Australian cover, show two tattooed arms joined at the hands; one carries Sokolov’s number and the other is tattooed with 34902. Gita’s number is repeated in a chapter headed “additional information”, which also states she was transported to the camp on April 13, 1942. But Gita Sokolov testified in 1997 that her number was 4562.
An investigation by The Australian has revealed further irregularities. According to the Auschwitz Chronicle, the highly regarded tome recording daily events at the camp from 1939 to 1945, the female number 4562 was tattooed on April 3, 1942 — 10 days earlier than stated in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The five-digit number ascribed to Gita was given to a Dutch woman in 1943. Of 1184 men, women and children transported from Westerbork that day, she was one of just 179 not sent to the gas chamber.
In her recorded testimony with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, Gita Sokolov stated her number was 4562. “And you know who made it? My husband,” she said.
Later, however, when talking about life at Birkenau, she said of her husband: “I already knew him, but not when he made my number, later. Somehow he was coming to a block and I was on that block.”
When she talked about having been moved from Auschwitz to Birkenau in July 1942, she did not mention being re-tattooed.
In his Shoah Foundation testimony, recorded in December 1996, Lali Sokolov said of Gita: “I saw her once marching and she saw me. Somehow we started … One day I came in the (women’s barracks) and I met her in the block. Since then I started to send her letters.”
Later in the interview, having mentioned he had had letters passed on to her, he was asked when he had met his wife. “I was not married (then). In 1945 … Do you want to jump (ahead)?” and another question was asked instead. He said nothing then about having tattooed her.
At another point, he was asked if he talked to the prisoners he tattooed, and he replied yes. “I remember only one. Look, it was a job, it had to be done. I remember only one guy.” And he went on to describe a large man called Yacob.
In a separate testimony recorded by Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre in May 1996, Sokolov did not mention tattooing Gita. He again talked about having seen her as she was made to march with some other women in Birkenau. “Very good looking girls; there I saw once marching the girls down (sic) — I saw my wife. I didn’t know her; I wasn’t married. But she was very beautiful.”
The book also includes a passage about Lali and Gita throwing handfuls of grass at one another, even though it is widely accepted that there was no grass in what has been described as a “landscape of death”.
Fiona Harari is the author of We Are Here: talking with Australia’s oldest Holocaust survivors