By Heather Morris
In late 1942, when Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov passed through the most notorious gates in modern history, he was a healthy, bright, outgoing young man with a penchant for the company of women. To reach his destination he had travelled for two days on an overcrowded cattle train from Prague without access to food, water or toilets. From this point on he became Prisoner Number 32407 at Auschwitz II–Birkenau, and having survived the initial selection and a serious bout of typhus, he was put to work as camp tattooist.
He had been manager of a fashionable department store in Bratislava when the Slovak Government decreed that every Jewish family living in his home town of Krompachy should send one child over the age of eighteen to work for the Germans. He was multilingual, quick to learn and adored his mother, so offered himself up for transportation in the hope of protecting his family.
Lale did what had to be done to survive, but he also boosted morale and saved inestimable lives by appropriating food and medical supplies from under the noses of the SS Death’s Head Units. He was naturally empathetic, well liked by his fellow prisoners and held out to the end with his dignity and integrity unblemished. More amazingly, perhaps, is that he developed a deep and enduring love for a women he had branded upon entering the camp.
When the writer Heather Morris met him in 2003 he was an elderly businessman living in Australia. They became unlikely friends and she saw that he “might just have a story worth telling”. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the remarkable, percipient, utterly unforgettable novel she based on Lale’s experiences as camp tätowierer.
Although a natural optimist with a tremendous zest for life, Lale feared history might remember him as a Nazi collaborator, which is why he agreed to tell his story. He died on 31st October 2006, aged 90, believing to the end that, “If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.”
Many thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for supplying an advance copy of this title for review.