IT was through a twist of fate that within weeks of being transported to Auschwitz in April 1942, 24-year-old Ludwig “Lale” Sokolov was befriended by a French academic named Pepan, the tatowierer (tattooist), and became his apprentice.
And a few weeks later the Nazis installed Lale as the tatowierer without explanation, and he was to spend the next two years inking numbers onto the arms of the Jewish concentration camp prisoners who weren’t sent to the gas chambers.
It was in July 1942 that Sokolov, head down at his work desk with ink and needles, was handed a paper with five digits: 34902. In front of him was an 18-year-old girl with bright brown eyes from the women’s camp, Birkenau, whose number needed redoing. A quick glance at her and Lale’s heart missed a beat. As soon as he finished his tattooing, there was a quick look and she was gone.
With the help of his SS guard, Lale found out which block she was in and was able to send her a love letter even though he didn’t know her name, which was Gita Furman. This led to secret meetings on Sundays, their first kiss and a blossoming romance.
Lale used his street smarts and his position as the tatowierer to stay alive in Auschwitz and to help Gita survive.
In 1945, the Nazis began shipping prisoners out of the camp before the Russians arrived. Gita was one of the women selected to leave Auschwitz.
Lale was devastated when he learnt that the woman he had fallen in love with was gone.
As World War II neared an end, Lale also left the camp and made his way back to his hometown of Krompachy in Czechoslovakia. Then he decided to search for Gita and set off by horse and cart for Bratislava, the entry point for many survivors returning home to Czechoslovakia.
Lale waited at the railway station for weeks, until the stationmaster advised him to go to the Red Cross. On his way there, a young woman stepped into the street in front of his horse – as fate would have it, it was Gita.
Lale and Gita returned to Slovakia and were married in October 1945. They moved to Melbourne in 1949 where their son Gary was born in 1961.
At their Caulfield home Gary grew up hearing some of his father’s stories of survival over the years. In 2002 Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation visited Lale and Gita to recorded their histories. A year later Gita died and Lale realised it was time to tell more about his wartime experiences in a book and asked Gary to find a writer.
A friend of Gary’s contacted Melbourne screenwriter Heather Morris and told her: “You should meet Mr Sokolov, he’s got an amazing story and you may want to write a movie about it!”
So it was arranged for Morris to meet Lale and Gary at their home.
Morris told The AJN last week: “At the end of our first meeting, I told him that I write screenplays, not books. When I explained what screenplays were and they were made into movies, Lale and Gary were hooked.”
New Zealand-born Morris told Lale that she was not Jewish, which helped convince him that she was the right person for the job.
“To him it was important that I had no baggage,” she said.
“Lale liked the idea of a movie about his life and wanted Brad Pitt to play him and Natalie Portman to play Gita.”
Morris had studied professional scriptwriting as a sideline while working full-time in the Social Work Department at Monash Medical Centre since 1995.
“For the first few weeks I just sat and talked and we became friends,” recalled Morris. “I didn’t start recording any interviews until later – it was a different approach to a journalist.
“Lale was keen to tell me his story, but he was not delving very deeply into his emotional history. That would only come out months and even years later.
“It did not take me long to realise the significance of what he was telling me about Auschwitz. I knew that I would have to take my time for him to tell his story. He spoke at bullet pace with limited coherency.”
Morris spent hours with Lale, often several times a week, over a three-year period as he opened up about his story of survival and deep love.
“He never believed that he was a collaborator – to him he just did a job; everybody in the camp worked for the SS. He worked to survive,” she said. “He told me: ‘I was lucky, lucky, lucky!’”
Gary said he listened in at some of the sessions with Morris, but after a while it became too much.
“I had heard a lot of it already. And if he wanted to get emotional while telling his story, it was easier if it was not in front of his son. With me he felt that he had to be tough, so the sessions flowed better when I was not there.
“Heather was amazing – she drew out another 80 per cent of Dad’s story. If someone was blessed, it was my Dad.”
During this time Film Victoria agreed to fund international research for Morris’s screenplay and unearthed important documents.
“Film Victoria was keen on the story and the researchers found documents that we didn’t even ask them to look for, including documents that led to the discovery that Lale’s parents had been killed at Auschwitz a month before he arrived there in 1942,” said Morris.
Lale, whose surname was originally Eisenberg but was changed after World War II, never knew what happened to his parents, Jozef and Serena – the evidence was discovered months after Lale died in 2006 aged 90.
Morris’s screenplay, titled The Tattooist, was optioned by a Melbourne filmmaker, but when it lapsed she entered it into several international screenwriting competitions, winning the International Independent Film Awards competition in 2016.
At the time movie producers told her that she needed to write a book first, so Morris embarked on a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds.
“I did the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to self-publish the story as a novel, and thought I would maybe sell 100 copies,” she said.
“An editor at Echo (Bonnier Publishing Australia) saw the Kickstarter campaign and contacted me, and that led to a publishing deal.
“I have not written the story of the Holocaust – it is just a Holocaust story. It’s the genre of historical fiction that gave me creative licence to weave Lale and Gita’s story into situations that factually happened. In this way I can reach a bigger audience.”
The resultant book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, was released in Europe in January and in Australia on February 1.
Now Morris has a busy schedule of promoting the book around Australia for a few weeks and then will continue the publicity tour in Europe.
Asked if the screenplay is still on the cards, Morris said it is currently in negotiations. “I hope that whoever makes it will do it justice. And I want to be involved to ensure that Lale and Gita are depicted as I have written them.”
Gary is thrilled with the book.
“It’s Heather’s first book and she has managed to keep the horrors of the Holocaust in the background and highlight the romance in that environment,” he said.
“The concept of survival shone through my Dad’s whole life – he was a genuine survivor, an opportunist and someone who quickly worked out what he needed to do to survive.
“It would be cool if Dad’s story is made into a film.”
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is published by Echo (Bonnier Publishing Australia), $29.99 (rrp).
REPORT by Danny Gocs