So who was the guy who tattooed the Auschwitz numbers?

tattooist of auschwitzReview: Vivien Horler

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris (Zaffre/ Jonathan Ball)

I was having a meal at Spier a few years ago when a family settled near me. The party included an elderly woman, who reached out for something on the table.

As her sleeve slid up, I saw a set of numbers tattooed on her wrist. I stared, appalled. Could that really be a Holocaust tattoo? The woman was nicely dressed, a touch of gold jewellery, surrounded by her family – she could have been any pleasant middle-class grandma. And yet, as we sat on that green terrace restaurant in the sunshine, those numbers hinted at a ghastly past.

Now I know that the man who engraved those numbers on her wrist might have been Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was one of the earliest inmates of Auschwitz, having arrived there in April 1942.

For nearly 50 years Sokolov kept silent about his wartime experiences. Even his son Gary, born in Australia in 1961, didn’t know the whole story.

Ironically, Sokolov had volunteered to work for the Germans, hoping his sacrifice would help protect the rest of his family. But it wasn’t long, travelling to Poland crammed into a cattle truck, before he began to realise the horror of what he had let himself in for.

When people arrived at Auschwitz they faced “selection” – the weak or sick or old were killed, and the young, healthy and strong were kept to work. On arrival they gave their names and addresses to clerks, and in turn were handed a slip of paper with a number.

They then moved to another table where these numbers were tattooed on to their arms. Sokolov was 32407.

In his first months at Auschwitz Sokolov was set to work in construction, building new camp huts. But shortly afterwards he came down with typhus, and was nursed back to health by Pepan, a French intellectual and the original Tätowierer or tattooist of Auschwitz. With the news that many more people were expected in the camp, Pepan persuaded the authorities that he needed an assistant, and Sokolov got the job. It had distinct benefits: he was given extra rations, his own room, and an official appointment as a member of the political wing of the SS. As noted in a BBC programme about Sokolov, he “lived a step further away from death than the other prisoners”.

He did not like his job – Jewish tradition disapproves of tattoos, and Sokolov felt he was defiling people’s bodies. But Pepan persuaded him that whatever he did for the Nazis, building huts or tattooing wrists, he was going to do some of their dirty work. At least he could try to be gentle. But a month or so later he was horrified when a group of young girls had to be tattooed.

Sokolov had already seen enough casual murder in the camp to know that he had to do as he was told or face death. A girl approached and handed him her slip, and he pressed the needle into her skin. Blood oozed.

But when he had done the deed, he looked into her eyes. Later, he would say in an interview, that as he tattooed her number on to her wrist, she tattooed that same number on to his heart.

And so began an extraordinary love story between Sokolov and Gita, also Slovakian. Sokolov believed he had a responsibility to survive, and with Gita, he was now determined they would both go on to have a life together after the war. Because he got extra rations, he was able to share food, some with his former hut mates, some with Gita and her friends, and later with a large group of Roma who were sent into his new block.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is described as a novel, but it is based on the true story of Sokolov and Gita, and is the result of hundreds of hours of interviews Heather Morris had with Sokolov after Gita’s death. Morris then got Sokolov’s account fact-checked against the available documentary evidence, and corroborated by the couple’s son Gary.

It is an extraordinary tale of quiet defiance, luck, determination and love.

  • This review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on March 4, 2018.

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