The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Ludwig Eisenberg, known as Lale, was born on 28th October, 1916 in Slovakia. On 23rd April, 1942, he was taken by train and forcibly transferred to Auschwitz. His number was 32407. It was in Birkenau that Lale meet his future wife, Gita Fuhrmannova, also Slovakian. Gita had been taken to Auschwitz on 13th April, 1942 and was later moved to Birkenau. Her number was 34902. She had it tattooed onto her arm by Lale.
This is an extraordinary tale of two people and their intense love affair played out with the horrific backdrop of the concentration camp at Auschwitz and the death camp at Birkenau. Lale Eisenberg, who took the name Sokolov after his escape from Nazi imprisonment, settled in Australia and it was there that he met the writer, Heather Morris. He recounted his story to her and provided new insight into what life was like for those who lived through those terrible times.
When Lale arrived at Auschwitz, he had no idea of how bad it was going to get. He was naive enough to believe that he would be held in the manner of a prisoner of war. That notion was soon to disappear as he witnessed the brutally of the guards present at the camp.
It was a chance meeting with Pepan, the tattooist of the camp, that allowed Lale the opportunity to make his life a little more comfortable, and safe. It was a questionable move, as the tattooist was a lackey of the Nazi regime HQ and, as such, pretty much beyond the close control of the camp guards. Lale managed to get his own personal room, extra rations and no manual labour. He was also given free movement around the camp so long as he carried his tool bag and password.
In the camps there were the notorious Kapos, Jewish prisoners who worked for the SS guards. Many Kapos were vicious and cruel to their fellow Jews and earned a reputation as traitors and abusers. There are vilified in modern accounts of the camps. Lale Sokolov was no different and was perhaps even worse in his role, and the degree to which he assisted the SS. His only concern was to ensure his own safety and he mentions this several times throughout his account of his time in the camps.
However, he did manage to smuggle food to starving prisoners and exhibited a degree of empathy and concern for the others locked up there. He was never violent nor brutal to other Jews and did, at least by his own accounts, save lives, including that of Gita, who he met when he was placing the dreaded tattoo on her teenage arm. When Gita fell ill, it was Lale who bought her medication by using jewellery, taken from the personal effects of those imprisoned, as currency.
It was this barter system that helped to bring extra food into the camp as Polish workmen, building the crematoriums and gas chambers, felt great pity for those trapped inside. Lale ensured that they were well paid. After all, the gold and diamonds would have been going to the Nazis anyway so it was a good thing to help prisoners with what the Nazis would have stolen.
But Lale was still what would be regarded as a collaborator. Rebel Voice wonders how other prisoners felt about his elevated position within the camp. In Lale’s defence, he claims that he was as gentle as he could be with the newly arrived victims of Nazi cruelty, and tried to advise those he could. He also took the chance to reprimand the SS officer assigned to move him daily from Auschwitz, where he was billeted, to Birkenau where most of his work was.
It was in Auschwitz that Lale got to know a large group of Romany people of all ages. Entire families were housed in the same part of the camp as he was and Lale provided them, especially the children with additional food and chocolate. One night he was awakened to the sound of intense activity in the camp and found that the entire Romany group had been removed. He was given no idea of their destination but by then had known about the gas chambers and crematoriums. It was as he was tattooing prisoners that day that the ash from the crematoriums began to fall on him. Lale realised that they were likely the remains of the Romany people who he had befriended, including the children. He was bordering on a complete psychotic break at this time, but managed to hold it together.
Lale Sokolov‘s account of life in the camps is incredibly insightful but also a tad confusing. Initially, Lale was assigned to live in Block 7 in Auschwitz. After he was moved to his own quarters, he continued to visit the men there, giving them food when possible. He remained in Auschwitz until almost the end of the war but at no time did he mention that the men from Block 7 were gassed. In fact, the only people that Lale mentions he knew personally who were gassed were the Romany people he met.
Although Birkenau was the death camp, it is inconceivable that Lale did not get to meet Jewish people in Auschwitz who were put to death in this manner. He does recall seeing SS guards shooting prisoners for no reason and for sport. He also remembers being taken into a gas chamber to view the tattoos on two bodies. The SS noticed what they thought was a mistake in the number but it turned out to be a faded 8 that they mistook for a 6. Inside the naked bodies of the victims were lying across the floor. But it’s unusual that the SS would have been walking through the chamber looking at individual numbers. Imagine a place with dead bodies piled on top of one another. Where would you put your feet, and why would the SS be checking numbers at that point?
Perhaps it was a misrecollection, as Sokolov was an old man at the time he spoke to Heather Morris. He mentions that the SS brought the two bodies with the conflicting tattoos to the side of the gas chamber, but that would imply room to do so, which is in contrast to accepted accounts of what the gas chambers were like. Lale Soklov’s description of what he saw raises some questions as to what happened in those places of death. It doesn’t entirely discount stories of the gas chambers, but does introduce confusing observations.
The Holocaust was a terrible time. There are many stories about it. Some are from survivors, many are not. The SS officers with Lale, during his visit to the chambers told him (whilst laughing) that he was perhaps the only Jew to enter one and walk out again. This ignores the existence of the Sonderkommandos, prisoners (including Jewish) who were given the unenviable task of removing the dead from the gas chambers and placing them in the ovens for cremation. It’s possible that Lale exaggerated some of what he related for this book. Sadly, it leads to confusion and frustration for those who wish to better understand the true horror of it all.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a good read. It’s not complete by any means, nor is it thorough. It is, however, an account of one man’s struggle to survive the evil that exists in the hearts of inhumans. It tells us about the love that blossomed between Lale and Gita, a pure emotion in a place of evil. We learn how they both escaped from Nazi imprisonment and what they did with their lives after. We also get some answers as to what happened to the SS guards that caused such terror.
Overall, the portrayal of Lale is not one-dimensional. Yes, he worked for the Nazis, but he also (again, we only have his account for this) helped his fellow inmates when he could. Ultimately he escaped, and it appears that he took with him some jewellery from the camps as he and Gita led a fairly affluent life after their marriage. He also became involved in business scandals which casts a shadow over his personality. All-in-all, a complex character but the book is the more interesting for it.
This book will provide you with a more clinical look at life in the Nazi concentration camps. There is some sentimentality but it’s not mawkish. It is revealing in its portrayal of the interaction between the prisoners and opens up a new perspective upon what went on in the camps. This makes The Tattooist of Auschwitz very educational.
Sult scale rating: 6.5 out of 10. This is not the best account of the Holocaust that you will read but is still good enough to pick up and learn from. The strongest part of this book is perhaps that the author seems to have missed the questions that have been raised about Lale Sokolov’s life. His recollections of life in a concentration camp are scattered and curious and will no doubt feed into the debate that rages over the authenticity of many accounts of what exactly took place on those terrible places.