Lale and Gita met while being held as prisoners in a concentration camp. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family
Lale and Gita met while being held as prisoners in a concentration camp. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family

Tattoo behind incredible story

TWENTY-four-year-old Lale Sokolov was one of 1500 men transported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp from Slovakia in April 1942.

32407. The number was stabbed on to his left arm on arrival.

Later, he found himself in the horrific position of choosing between certain death, and life working as a death camp tattooist. He chose to live, and the story below is an extract from The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which tells of his horrific experience, and of finding love in the unlikeliest of places.

Lale and Gita wmet while being held as prisoners in a concentration camp. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family
Lale and Gita wmet while being held as prisoners in a concentration camp. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family

 

***

Lale is taking too long. Tattooing the arms of men is one thing; defiling the bodies of young girls is horrifying.

Glancing up, Lale sees a man in a white coat slowly walking up the row of girls. Every now and then he stops to inspect the face and body of a terrified young woman. Eventually he reaches Lale. While Lale holds the girl's arm as gently as he can, the man takes her face in his hand and turns it roughly this way and that. Lale looks up into the frightened eyes. Her lips move in readiness to speak. Lale squeezes her arm tightly to stop her. She looks at him and he mouths, 'Shh.' The man in the white coat releases her face and walks away.

'Well done,' he whispers as he sets about tattooing the remaining four digits - 4 9 0 2. When he has finished, he holds on to her arm for a moment longer than necessary, looking again into her eyes. He forces a small smile. She returns a smaller one. Her eyes, however, dance before him. Looking into them his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, almost threatening to burst out of his chest. He looks down at the ground and it sways beneath him. Another piece of paper is thrust at him.

'Hurry up, Lale!' Pepan whispers urgently.

When he looks up again she is gone

The couple survived the camp, and emigrated to Melbourne, where they had a son. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family
The couple survived the camp, and emigrated to Melbourne, where they had a son. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family

 

***

 

Sunday. Prisoners meander around the compound singly and in small groups. Some sit up against the buildings, too tired and weak to move. A handful of SS roam about chatting and smoking, ignoring the prisoners. Gita and her friends walk around, keeping their faces blank. All but Gita talk quietly. She is looking about her.

Lale watches Gita and her friends, smiling at Gita's worried look. Whenever her eyes almost land on him, he ducks behind other prisoners. He moves slowly towards her. Dana sees him first and is about to say something when Lale holds a finger to his lips. Without breaking step, he reaches out, takes Gita by the hand and continues walking. Her friends giggle and grasp each other as Lale silently steers Gita around the back of the administration building, checking to make sure the guard in the nearby tower is relaxed and not looking in their direction.

He slides his back down the wall of the building, pulling Gita with him. From there they can see the forest beyond the perimeter fence. Gita peers down at the ground while Lale looks intently at her.

'Hello ...' he says tentatively.

'Hello,' she replies.

'I hope I haven't frightened you.'

'Are we safe?' She darts a look at the nearby guard tower.

'Probably not, but I can't go on just seeing you. I need to be with you and talk to you like people should.'

'But we're not safe -'

'It's never going to be safe. Talk to me. I want to hear your voice. I want to know all about you. All I know is your name. Gita. It's beautiful.'

'What do you want me to say?'

Lale struggles for the right question. He goes for something ordinary. 'How about ... How's your day been?'

Now she lifts her head and looks him straight in the eyes.

'Oh, you know how it is. Got up, had a big breakfast, kissed Mumma and Papa goodbye before catching the bus to work. Work was -'

'OK, OK, I'm sorry, dumb question.'

Lale and Gita managed to build a life together, but rarely talked about the war. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family
Lale and Gita managed to build a life together, but rarely talked about the war. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family

They sit side-by-side but looking away from each other. Lale listens to Gita's breathing. She taps a thumb against her thigh. Finally, she says, 'So how is your day going?'

'Oh, you know. Got up, had a big breakfast ...'

They look at each other and laugh quietly. Gita gently nudges against Lale. Their hands accidentally touch for an instant.

'Well, if we can't talk about our day, tell me something about yourself,' Lale says.

'There's nothing to tell.'

Lale is taken aback. 'Of course there is. What's your surname?'

She stares at Lale, shaking her head. 'I'm just a number. You should know that. You gave it to me.'

'Yes, but that's just in here. Who are you outside of here?'

'Outside doesn't exist anymore. There's only here.'

Lale stands up and stares at her. 'My name is Ludwig Eisenberg but people call me Lale. I come from Krompachy, Slovakia. I have a mother, a father, a brother and a sister.' He pauses. 'Now it's your turn.'

Lale told his story to author Heather Morris before he died. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family
Lale told his story to author Heather Morris before he died. Picture: Heather Morris / Sokolov family

Gita meets his stare defiantly. 'I am prisoner 34902 in Birkenau, Poland.'

Conversation fades into uneasy silence. He watches her, her downcast eyes. She is struggling with her thoughts: what to say, what not to say.

Lale sits back down, in front of her this time. He reaches out as if to take her hand, before withdrawing it. 'I don't want to upset you, but will you promise me one thing?'

'What?'

'Before we leave here, you will tell me who you are and where you come from.'

She looks him in the eyes, 'Yes, I promise.'This is an edited extract from The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Bonnier Publishing Australia), available now

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is an incredible true story of love in the most unlikely of places.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is an incredible true story of love in the most unlikely of places.

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