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What The Tattooist of Auschwitz teaches us about the Holocaust

Gita and Lale, The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Gita and Lale, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, credit: The Sokolov Family.

Released on 11th January, Heather Morris’s historical novel tells the true story of Auschwitz’s tattooist, and how he fell in love with one of the prisoners he tattooed. Morris spent three years interviewing Lale Sokolov, the camp’s “tetovierer” for two years, corroborating his account with international researchers. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, here are a few things The Tattooist of Auschwitz can teach us about one of the twentieth century’s greatest atrocities.

You go and be with Gita and I will never give up trying to tell your story.

Heather Morris

Many stories have never been told

What the Auschwitz tattooist did is common knowledge. After their possessions were seized, their head shaved and their clothes swapped for rags, the prisoner’s “number” was tattooed on their arm. In this symbolic act, they were stripped of their identity; their name swapped for a number. It was a practice unique to Auschwitz and its sub-camps, and by mid-1943 all prisoners were tattooed. What was never known, was the identity of this faceless tetovierer, and how he came to this unthinkable task.

Good people were made to do terrible things

Lale, in fact, started out as just another prisoner. When the Nazis entered his village, he surrendered himself in hopes of protecting his family. Arriving at Auschwitz in 1942, a series of accidents led to his appointment as tetovierer. He took the job to survive, but carried the guilt of what he had done for the rest of his life. Fearing people would see him as a collaborator, Lale almost took the secret to the grave, wishing once again to protect his family. He only agreed to tell his story following his wife’s death in 2003 (he died in 2006.)

Prisoner and SS employee

As tetovierer, Lale worked for the SS political wing, giving him certain privileges. He lived separately from other prisoners and was allowed free time and extra food rations. When he tattooed Gita Fuhrmannova on her arrival in 1942 (he was assisting the previous tetovierer) it was love at first sight. Lale used his privileges to send her letters and meet her in secret. He also brought food to Gita and others in the camp; some of it obtained through bartering with local villagers. Yet he too lived in perpetual fear. Working alongside sadistic “doctor” Josef Mengele, who selected prisoners for death (and pioneered Auschwitz’s human “experiments”) Lale always knew he could be next. Like so many survivors, he was plagued by anxiety for the rest of his life.

Love is stronger than hate

It appears inconceivable that two people could find love amid the daily horror of Auschwitz. Nevertheless, Lale and Gita did just that, and, more remarkably, found their happy ending. After his release, Lale spent weeks looking for Gita in Bratislava, until one day she stepped out in front of his horse and cart. They married in October 1945 and spent the rest of their lives together.

Both harrowing and life-affirming, The Tattooist of Auschwitz brings home the human experience behind the Holocaust’s unspeakable atrocities, to a generation too young to remember it. In doing so, it reminds us how many people never lived to tell their story and why what happened must never be forgotten.

Read our interview with author Heather Morris here, and tune in to H2 from 6pm on Saturday 27 January where we will be commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day with a series of programmes.