Settle in and listen to Heather Morris and Ellen Cregan, in conversation at Readings Carlton for our very first First Book Club event of the year. When Lale Sokolov wanted to tell his story, Heather Morris had no idea what she’d uncovered. Today the story of his survival, and his love for his wife, makes up our February Book Club Title The Tattooist of Auschwitz. You can read an extract from the book, which is out now from Echo Publishing, right here.
Our March First Book Club title is Robert Lukin’s The Everlasting Sunday.
Meaghan Dew: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. We’ve had a break over the summer but, as much as we hate to admit it, autumn is here and so are we. Our First Book Club series will be running throughout the year and, where we can, we’ll release recordings of these events between our regularly scheduled programming. Our February book club title was The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. She was recorded in conversation with Ellen Cregan this week.
Ellen Cregan: Welcome to Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club. So, before we begin, I’d just like to acknowledge that we’re meeting here today on the land of the Wurundjeri people and we pay our respect to elders past, present and emerging and extend that respect to any elders from any other communities who may be here today.
So today we’re here with Heather Morris, who’s written this fantastic book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which some of you may have already read, others are about to read. So, welcome Heather and thank you very much for coming. So, this is the story of Lale Sokolov – and I’ve said that correctly haven’t I?
Heather Morris: Yes, you have.
KYD: The real life tattooist assigned to Auschwitz-Birkenau. So, we’re actually going to start with a little reading from the text, so you can all get a taste of the writing if you haven’t already read the book.
HM: Thank you.
Lale runs from the building to the women’s camp. The door to block twenty-nine was shut. No one stands guard outside. Entering, Lale finds the women huddled together at the back. Even Cilka is there. They gather around, frightened and full of questions.
‘All I can tell you is that the SS appear to be destroying records,’ Lale says. ‘One of them told me the Russians are nearby.’ He withholds the news that the camp is going to be emptied out the next day, because he doesn’t want to cause further alarm by admitting that he doesn’t know where to.
‘What do you think the SS are going to do with us?’ Dana asks.
‘I don’t know. Let’s hope they will run off and let the Russians liberate the camp. I’ll try to find out more. I’ll come back and tell you what I learn. Don’t leave the block, there are bound to be some trigger-happy guards out there.’ He takes Dana by both hands. ‘Dana, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but while I have the chance I want to tell you how much I will always be grateful to you for being Gita’s friend. I know you have kept her going many times when she has wanted to give up.’ They embrace. Lale kisses her on the forehead and then hands her over to Gita. He turns to Cilka and Ivana and wraps them both in a bear hug. To Cilka he says, ‘You are the bravest person I have ever met. You must not carry any guilt for what has happened here. You are an innocent, remember that.’
In between sobs, she replies, ‘I did what I had to do to survive. If I hadn’t, someone else would have suffered at the hands of that pig.’
‘I owe my life to you Cilka and I will never forget that.’
He turns to Gita.
‘Don’t say anything,’ she says. ‘Don’t you dare say a word.’
‘No, don’t you say anything to me other than you’ll see me tomorrow. That’s all I want to hear from you.’
Lale looks at these young women and realises that there is nothing left to say. They were brought to this camp as girls and now, not one of them yet having reached the age of twenty-one, they are broken, damaged young women. He knows they will never grow to be the women they were meant to be. Their futures have been derailed and there will be no getting back on the same track. The visions they once had of themselves as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, workers, travellers and lovers will forever be tainted by what they have witnessed and endured.
He leaves them to go in search of Baretski and information about what the next day will bring. The officer is nowhere to be found.
Lale trudges back to his bock where he finds the Hungarian men, anxious and worried. He tells them what he knows, but it is of little comfort.
KYD: I think I’ve this one working now, so – Thank you very much, Heather. That was lovely [applause] Only a very short excerpt you just read then, but if any of you are like me you will read this book extremely quickly, sort of consume it.
So I’d actually like to start out by asking about Lale. What – just for those who haven’t read the book – what has his background and how did he end up sort of confined into the camp?
HM: Lale was born in Krompachy, a small town in Slovakia. He graduated from school, he went into business and he was working in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia at the time that the war started to turn and Slovakia was being dragged into it. And the government was acquiescing to everything that Hitler asked of them. He found himself out of a job – all Jews were put out of work – and he returned home to his parents. While there, notices got put around in the small village saying that every family that had a child over the age of sixteen had to surrender one of those children to go and work for the Germans. The word was ‘work’. Lale had an older brother who was married with two small children and he had a younger sister. And there was no question; he would be the one to volunteer. And that’s what he did. He volunteered to go and work for the Germans, thinking he would be keeping his family safe.
KYD: Whereas in fact, very soon after his family also were taken by the Germans – is that correct?
HM: We don’t know what happened to his brother, his wife and two young children – never found that out. We did discover through research, after Lale had died, that in fact his parents were brought into Auschwitz and they died immediately. I’m so grateful Lale never learnt that. I don’t think he could have handled knowing that he had been in that same camp as them. His sister survived.
KYD: How did you meet Lale?
HM: Lale used to say that in the lottery of life he was lucky, lucky, lucky. Well, I say the same thing. I was lucky the day I had a coffee with a friend and she said to me, ‘Oh, by the way, I have this other friend whose mother recently died and his father says he’s got a story he wants to tell. Are you interested in hearing it?’ The only criteria was that you can’t be Jewish. I said, ‘Hmm! I meet that criteria!’ [laughter] And so yes! I went to meet a man after a cup of coffee.
KYD: And it is such an incredible story and very lucky indeed that you were the one to hear it. What made you decide, when you head his he story, that you wanted to sort of share it, you know, beyond just telling people that you wanted to write a book?
HM: I didn’t want to write a book, I wrote a screenplay. I didn’t have a clue how to write a book and I’m still not convinced I do! Talk to my editor back there and see what she has to say about it.
I had been writing screenplays, dabbling in them and it was my passion, it was the medium I liked. And so yes, telling Lale that I was going to write a screenplay was a very interesting experience in itself.
But in terms of meeting him – his wife had just died. I was facing a man so grief-stricken that all he would say to me was ‘Hurry up and write.’ I didn’t have the heart to say to him ‘Write what?’ because he wasn’t giving me very much. And he would say ‘I need to be with Gita. I need to be with Gita, now hurry up.’ And so I’d pester him and we’d sit down.
I’ve been asked many times, how long did I interview him for? And when I thought about that I went, ‘You know, I never actually interviewed him?’ I sat and talked to him. I never took recording material, not even pen and paper. I sat and talked to him, week after week after week, and gradually he started unburdening, breaking down. And I’m hearing snippets of things and I’m saying, ‘There’s more here, there’s more here. Now don’t push him. Just wait.’
KYD: So you sort of let the story come out quite organically and those memories come back to the surface in that way?
HM: Organically in the sense that he was telling me as he was remembering – it would have been lovely if he’d had a timeline memory. Of course, he didn’t. And so what I was hearing were just vignettes that had no relevance to each other – time, place. But I could tell that in amongst them he was – I was sitting with living history. It was just a matter of time.
And at this point I’m going to point out that one of the reasons I was able to go and visit him so often and get his story, particularly in the first six months, was I used to sneak out from work. And the reason I could sneak out from work was a certain lady standing there in a pink shirt, my boss of twenty-one years, turned a blind eye and let me do it. So thank you Glinda, forever grateful.
KYD: I can definitely second that, because it is a fantastic story. And the way that this sort of came out with these conversations with Lale – did this influence your choice to have this as a fictionalised, like a novel as opposed to a memoir?
HM: No, because I’m still thinking about a screenplay! I’m still seeing this played out on a screen big or small. And that part of what I – this process – that I took so long to make that leap and realise that the one percent of the one percent of the one percent of the one percent of screenplays written each year may get read somewhere. And I stupidly persevered for far too long. And of course, writing a screenplay, I was writing it to be seen visually and I wasn’t even thinking about fiction, nonfiction, memoir – those words weren’t in my vocabulary.
KYD: Mm. It was just getting the story across in that way.
HM: Yes. And dramatising it as best I could.
KYD: Yeah, yeah definitely. So you were incredibly lucky having Lale as your sort of living primary source while you were putting that story together or sort of gathering that information. How did you find it writing about people who you didn’t have that direct relationship with? So, the people that Lale was remembering. Did you find characterising those people – how did you find that experience, I suppose?
HM: I cheated a little bit. The character in the book called Dana is actually a lovely lady called Lottie, who is alive and living in Sydney. She in fact was that character. She’s ninety-three years of age and I’ll see her on Sunday when I’m up in Sydney. And she was in the camp with Gita in the same block. And so I visited Lottie and I sat and talked to her and from her I got that inside information about what went on with the girls’ camp. And from there it was a matter of – and this is why it comes out as an historical fiction book – I had to put thoughts and memories into Gita’s head and into other people. Lale didn’t know them, of course not. Lottie gave me a lot and – another thank you I need to give but, as long as he doesn’t hear, I kind of plagarised him a little bit – that Steven Spielberg. He had his Shoah Foundation send people all around the world and they were recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. And they came to Melbourne and both Lale and Gita gave testimonies. And Lale had copies of those testimonies. So here I had two hours of Gita on video telling what went on and how she felt.
KYD: Wow, I didn’t realise that at all.
HM: No, please don’t tell anyone! [Laughter]
KYD: I won’t tell Steven, don’t worry.
HM: Thank you.
KYD: So, what were their… Watching those testimonies and knowing Lale’s story so well, was it kind of a shock to hear the other – to hear Gita’s side? Because they would’ve been separate quite a lot because it was – yeah.
HM: Oh, absolutely! Yes. And her memories, it looks like they matched Lale wherever he was involved with her. But learning from her what was going on in that block every night with the girls as they would huddle together, four or five together in a bed, going to work in a building where you daren’t raise your eyes above the level of the book that you were having to write in. This came out from Lale and he didn’t actually I don’t think appreciate at the time until he started telling me how he, when he was tattooing prisoners, never looked them in the face. And he knew everybody as a number. And so he was able to in some ways clinically divorce himself from what he was doing.
And it took a while before he realised that Gita was working in a [unintelligible] where she was handling the cards that had the names, the addresses, the family details of all these people that were coming in. So they weren’t a number to her, they were real people. And she would be transcribing them from a card filled with information when they first came in and then a week, a month later she would then have to go to the book where she put the details and cross them out, because she had been told that they were no longer alive. And so for her, that experience of – just so much different to Lale’s. And I think it contributed to her being a totally closed book. She never spoke – other than to this recorder for the Shoah Foundation – she wouldn’t even speak to their son about what she had witnessed and what went on there.
KYD: Just moving on to some other characters that you have in the novel who were real people – so one of the things that I was, that I found most fascinating, was the relationship between Lale and Baretski, who’s this sort of horrible guard who is kind of his… he manipulates, I suppose. Do you know – so Baretski was a real person. What happened…?
HM: Yes, yes. Stefan Baretski is his full name.
KYD: What happened to him after the end of the war?
HM: Well, he was given the task of being Lale’s minder. So he would be with him every day while they were at the selections and while they were doing the tattooing. And he would walk with him when he had to go from one camp to the other.
KYD: Because Lale had quite a bit of freedom compared to some of the other people who were in the camps. He had quite a…
HM: He freely admitted he was – a ‘privileged prisoner’ was the title. Which said, yes, he had freedom of movement. And Baretski was with him or not with him in some cases. After a while he’d just say ‘[unintelligible] – Auschwitz, off you go. I’m going back to my bunk.’ And so he was this – ‘Kid’ he called him. Actually he called him an ‘uneducated oaf.’ And Lale was educated and not an oaf. So he learned to read him, to manipulate him, to say the right things to this person to have him on his side. And Baretski even at one point apparently wanted to call him a ‘friend’. And Lale would just nod and go, ‘whatever.’ He manipulated him. And what happened to him? He was charged with war crimes in Frankfurt. And found guilty. Such was the level of this guy’s behaviour. And he took the coward’s way out and he committed suicide.
KYD: Because his behaviour in the novel is certainly explosive. Like, there are points where one minute he’s at that point of calling Lale ‘friend’ and the next minute he’s got a gun against his head. And it’s kind of like you never know where it’s going to go with the two of them and it’s a very interesting dynamic. And it would be–
HM: It was game playing by him. He had the power. At all times, he had the power. Lale just had to dance around it. And when he felt threatened, then Lale knew to step back. When he thought Baretski was someone he could get something from, he would advance. And so this was all part of Lale being a chief manipulator.
KYD: So in the beautiful epilogue to the book, we learn a little bit about the lives of Lale and Gita after they leave the camp and after the war is over. I was actually talking to one of my colleagues about this book a few weeks ago and he made a great point that you could almost have a whole other book about what happened to those two after the war, because their lives were very exciting even after that sort of horrible chapter of their life had closed. Could you tell us a little bit about what they went on to do following that?
HM: Well once they both got out of Birkenau – and Gita was taken on a death march on 25 January 1945 and Lale saw her go, saw her being taken out with every other woman in Birkenau. And two days later on 27 January, which was the last day that the SS held Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Russians advanced, Lale was put on a train and sent to another camp. He eventually escaped and, while he didn’t know what had happened to Gita, he said he always knew she was alive. And he just knew that if something had happened to her, he would know it. So when he finally got back to Slovakia, he went looking for her. And after several weeks of not knowing very much about her, it was suggested to him that he go to the Red Cross in Bratislava and register his name and her name. And just keep that way. And I’m sorry folks, it’s a Hollywood ending! But it’s how it happened.
KYD: It certainly is. It’s a very lovely ending.
HM: And I don’t mind giving it away for anyone who hasn’t read the book! He’s riding down these war-torn streets of Bratislava in a little cart with a horse out front and – looking for Gita, but Gita found him. She was walking with a couple of her friends and she saw him coming towards them and she literally stepped out in front of the horse – thankfully the horse had the good sense to stop – and stood there. And he didn’t immediately recognise her, because she had hair and she was dressed in clothes. He soon did and as he said it was the eyes, once again her eyes captivated him. He got off the horse and was speechless and literally dropped to his knees in the street in Bratislava. She said to him ‘I don’t know if you heard me as I was being taken away, but I called out I love you.’ At that point he said, ‘Will you marry me?’
KYD: It’s very Hollywood indeed.
HM: Very Hollywood!
KYD: And what about when they came to Australia?
HM: They came here in 1949 and prior to coming here they were living the good life in Slovakia. And he had a business, they were doing very well and they would holiday and had cars. But in the background Lale was helping smuggle money and jewels, anything of value, out of Slovakia to help form the free state of Israel. And he got caught. And next thing he finds himself back in gaol. Gita was a very resourceful woman at this point and they’d been smart enough not to have all their wealth, all their money, stashed in the one spot, because his business was nationalised, their home was taken. And she had to bribe a judge, and then she bribed a Catholic priest to visit a Jew in a prison, and then bribed a psychiatrist and Lale was told how to behave. He was given weekend leave before he totally went ‘round the bend and during that weekend leave they were put into the false haul of a truck and smuggled out of Slovakia and into Vienna. And from there they got to Paris and just went, ‘We’ve gotta get out of dodge. This whole continent’s not for us anymore.’ So they bought forged passports – well they had them made actually – and came to Australia and lived here from 1949. Lale never left the country again. Gita returned to Slovakia twice to visit her father and friends there.
KYD: And then they came to Australia.
HM: They came to Australian and – you want me to write the story from there on? What do you think, Angela? We got a story here? [laughter] Sure! Look, I don’t think I will. I have another project and, for those of you who have read the book, it involves telling the story of Cilka, a young girl in the book whose story is extremely compelling and heartbreaking.
KYD: Extremely heartbreaking. Another – in certain ways, another ‘privileged prisoner’ – but also so many more horrors sort of inflicted upon her.
HM: A sixteen-year-old girl. She was sixteen.
KYD: And with this, as with Tattooist, how do you actually decide – from such a big story and a true story – how do you decide what to have in the book and what to not include?
HM: That ended up being quite simple for me. Because I’d written a screenplay and screenplays you are really hamstrung by what you can put in them and they’ve got to just have this really brief hundred-and-ten pages, hundred-and-ten minutes of film time, get it in, get it out. And so I used that as my structure, but I could elaborate on that of course. In terms of what to leave in and out, it became very clear to both myself and to Angela that I wasn’t going to be telling the story of the Holocaust, I was only going to be telling a Holocaust story – the story of Lale and Gita. So that became very easy then, for me to leave out all those events that were going on that didn’t impinge on their story. And there’s no way I’m going to write and tell you some of the stuff that Lale told me that he both witnessed and experienced. You don’t need to know, trust me. Nothing good can come of it. So I left out the time and time again of him witnessing events that Mengele carried out on prisoners. I never mentioned at any point in time what’s going on outside the camp. So I actually can’t tell you whether or not Himmler was raiding Africa or not at the time. It’s not relevant. I wanted to tell Lale and Gita’s story only.
KYD: And this overwhelmingly is a love story – their love story and the story of their life together, or the beginning of their life together. Was it difficult writing this book and sort of combing those nice elements where they have these beautiful conversations and they’re spending time with each other and it’s like a ray of sunshine in this horrible grey camp with – there are much more harrowing scenes where you see a lot of violence and death. Did you find it difficult to blend those elements within the one book?
HM: Yes it was a huge challenge. Because I needed to – I wanted to tell a love story, but you couldn’t deny what was going on around them. And it became a matter – and I think this is also where it touched, reached over into that narrative of historical fiction – it was taking some of their moments together and weaving the into the timelines that research and facts were found out about. And putting them together, for example, when the Americans flew over the camp – they weren’t. But I could get a much more dramatic moment by putting them together. So yes, I just tried to weave a story together of these two things – the Holocaust and the love – and hoped that I could get the balance right. I wrote the words and I threw them up in the air and when they landed Angela down there unscrambled them, put them back together again and we got a story.
KYD: One of the single images that I think summarises this book for me personally is when they’re out on their Sunday – was it Sunday that they were allowed the afternoon? – and they’re together and Lale says ‘Can I kiss you?’ to Gita and she says ‘Why would you wanna do that? I haven’t brushed my teeth in months.’ And that kind of summarised the book for me, because on the one hand you’ve got this beautiful relationship that’s blossoming of these two young people and they love each other, but also you’ve got the fact that they’re confined to this horrible place and they can’t even brush their teeth. And for me that was kind of why that captured that moment – that that particular moment captured the feeling there of… it was very [un]balanced, I suppose, of the two sides of their life at that point.
HM: Yeah, they’re having a relationship with somebody who hasn’t had a shower or a bath in two years.
KYD: Exactly, and you don’t think of that when you hear those Holocaust stories necessarily.
HM: No. From Gita’s perspective, she didn’t think she was going to leave the camp. As far as she was concerned she would be one of those people going up, as she would say, ‘through the chimney.’ Lale, he always knew he was. He was the eternal optimist. ‘I will survive.’ He just had to manipulate ways to do that. But given at any day and at any moment in time couldn’t have – and so a certain bravado come into their relationship, where even he admitted that he was foolish to not only put himself at risk, but he was putting her at risk. But it became a matter of, ‘Two years have gone by, I’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do this. We have to find a way to be together.’
KYD: And he sort of does hit that point towards the end of the book where he says ‘It’s been three years since I’ve been – I was locked away. And they’re not getting another day.’ And he sort of decides in that one moment that he’s off.
HM: Exactly. Weird that after three years that you can say ‘Okay, enough.’ No, the circumstances permitted. He was in a different camp – the guards, they were more lax and he–
KYD: He essentially just walked off into the night!
HM: Yeah he dug himself under a fence and he sort of said, ‘I was right near a forest and I could hear a stream nearby.’ He said, ‘All I knew is that I wanted to get to the stream.’ I said, ‘Well it was great that you had a forest there’ and he went, ‘Well, no not really, because there was no leaves on the trees. It was the middle of winter.’ Okay, good point. But he did. He got into the forest, he got to the stream – which in fact was the Danube River. And threw himself in – because he could hear the shelling and the gunfire. Russians on one side, Germans on the other. And he tried to swim across, but the current picked him up and started taking him down and he suddenly found himself literally under the crossfire of these two warring armies. He wasn’t the only body in the water, but he was the only body that was alive. So it was very easy for him to just play dead and let the current take him – and he did get to the other side and surrender to the Russians.
KYD: And that was a whole ‘nother chapter of his manipulative, brilliant, sort of wily ways. He pulled the wool over the Russian’s eyes as well.
HM: He spoke Russian, so they took advantage of that once they’d found out who he was and, yes, he had another little interlude before he made his way home.
KYD: So thank you everyone for coming along and thank you so much Heather for speaking with me. It’s been excellent to hear about the book and it’s – I think it’s so great to hear about behind the book or beyond the book, and what’s in the next book as well. So yes, thank you very much.
HM: You’re welcome. Thank you so much.
KYD: And for anyone who’d like to buy a copy of the book, there’s big stack up at the counter. It’s a very good read. And Heather, will you be signing some copies for us?
HM: Sure. Can I leave you with an anecdote that relates to his son? Gary is, I suppose he’s in his mid-fifties now – but there was of course many things that he didn’t know about his parents and he learnt about them through my manuscript and earlier on through my screenplay. I got a draft of the screenplay together – and it was a woeful one, it’ll never see the light of day – and I bound it and I gave it to Lale for his birthday one day. And Gary was sitting there and we’ve got coffee and cake and we’re sitting there at the dining table. And Gary he’s [unintelligible] perhaps the script off and he’s flicking through it and he goes ‘Heather, there’s something in here you’ve got to take out and it’s not correct.’ ‘Not a problem. If it’s inaccurate I’m happy to do that. What is it?’ And he points out a scene where his parents are intimate. I look over the table at Lale and I show him and Lale’s head goes down. And he says ‘You have to take it out.’ And I said, ‘Lale, do I take it out?’ ‘No.’ ‘Lale, did it happen?’ Well, Gary stands up , grabs the script, whacks his poor dad over the head and glares at him. ‘How could you? How could you sleep with my mother before you were married?’ Lale looked up and went, ‘You had to be there.’ Gary wandered off to get something stronger to drink. Thank you so much for coming this evening it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Meaghan Dew: That was Heather Morris in conversation with Ellen Cregan. The Tattooist of Auschwitz from Echo Publishing is available in all good bookstores and libraries. If you want to follow along with the KYD First Book Club, our March title is The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins. It has just been released by UQP so get your copy now and head along to the next book club event at Readings Carlton on Thursday 29 March. Until then, get reading. And make sure you check in with killyourdarlings.com.au for great commentary, fiction, essays and more. See you next time.