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Close-up of 'The Tattooist of Auschwitz' novel in the garden on a beautiful day

The true story behind 'The Tattooist of Auschwitz'

'The Tattooist of Auschwitz' is a very popular novel, but how much of it is based on a true story? This is the life of Lale Solokov, the real tattooist of Auschwitz, who met his wife inside the Nazi death camp.

Image: hamdi bendali /

In the wake of the Holocaust, many stories have survived. They are stories that show the resilience of the countless people who lost their homes, lives and loved ones. One of these stories is the life of Lale Sokolov, whose life was documented in a 2018 novel.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz quickly became one of the most well-known novels in Holocaust literature. Telling the story of Lale Sokolov and his wife, Gita Gurman, it captured the hearts and minds of people across the world. But even fiction based upon real life can sometimes stray from the truth.

So, what is the true story behind The Tattooist of Auschwitz? How do the real-life events differ from the narrative of the novel?

Lale Sokolov – In real life

Born Ludwig Eisenberg on 28th October 1916, Lale grew up in a Jewish family. With the sudden emergence of World War II and the increasing persecution of Jewish people within Nazi Germany, Lale’s life was thrown into turmoil.

In 1942, at the age of 25, Lale was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious Nazi death camp. He left behind his family, who he would never see again.

Many people transported to Auschwitz were killed immediately. However, because of Lale’s age, health and fluency in multiple languages (Slovakian, German, French, Hungarian and Russian) – he was made the camp's tattooist.

His job was to mark new arrivals with their identification numbers. Lale was assigned the number 32407 himself. This job as the tattooist spared him from the deadly labour, but he struggled with the ethical implications of his role as many of these fellow prisoners were killed and starved while he was given a layer of protection.

Over the course of his imprisonment at Auschwitz, Lale tattooed hundreds of thousands of prisoners with the help of his assistants. Lale’s story is one example of many victims who were given ethically challenging jobs in exchange for protection.

Meeting Gita Furman

Just as outlined in the novel, Lale Sokolov met fellow prisoner Gita Furman. She had been transported from Slovakia and was given the number 34902. Throughout Lale’s experiences in the camp, Gita became a beacon of hope. Lale smuggled letters to her and they had secret visits outside of her block. He tried to smuggle rations to her and help her throughout their time in the camp.

As the war reached its end in 1945, the Nazis began to move prisoners out of Auschwitz before the arrival of the Russian army. Gita was one of these prisoners and soon she and Lale were parted. When the camp was liberated, Lale searched for her and in turn, Gita searched for him.

Lale went to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, which was the entry point for many people returning home. Lale waited at the railway station for weeks before going to the Red Cross. On his way there, he met Gita on the street and the two of them reunited.

For many years, Lale kept his experiences in Auschwitz a secret, even from his family. It wasn’t until Gita’s death in 2003 that he felt compelled to share his story. This led to him eventually telling his story to author Heather Morris.

Lale passed away in 2006, after leaving his story behind.

How these events were turned into a novel

Heather Morris spent three years recording Lale’s memories. She eventually compiled them into a novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which was published in 2018. While this book is a fictionalised account – it is deeply rooted in Lale’s real experiences and stories.

To create the narrative, Morris visited Lale multiple times a week and compared his story to her own research. The novel she eventually wrote offers a unique perspective on the horrors of the Holocaust – following a person who was forced to tattoo others and eventually showing the redemptive qualities of love.

While the novel alters the truth slightly to fit Lale’s story into a prose style, it is mostly rooted in his real experiences. Although it shouldn’t be treated as a literal, first-person account of what happened during the Holocaust, it is a story that highlights the core experiences of one person’s resilience during a dark part of human history.