SALEM – What would you do in order to survive? In two incredible novels based on real-life Holocaust stories, Australian author Heather Morris explores the ways that two Jewish prisoners used the tiny bit of power granted them as they muddled through the pits of hell with everyone else.
The numbered tattoos on the arms of concentration camp prisoners have become a dreaded, internationally recognized symbol of the Holocaust. But before a chance encounter between an elderly man and a non-Jewish hospital social worker in a Melbourne café, not many people knew that at Auschwitz, it had been a Jewish prisoner doing the tattooing.
For years, Lale Sokolov had kept the fact that he was the “Tattooist of Auschwitz”, needling numbers onto the skins of hundreds of thousands of unwilling patients, a secret, worried he would be branded a collaborator. But in his declining years, he felt ready to share his story with the world. He asked his son to find him a non-Jewish audience to avoid what he felt was the baggage and preconceptions he felt all Jews carry about the Holocaust.
For three years, New Zealand-born Heather Morris learned Sokolov’s incredible story: in 1942, he was deported to Auschwitz from his native Slovakia. As an able-bodied 26-year-old, he worked to construct new housing blocks for the increasing number of prisoners. After he contracted typhoid, he was cared for by the Frenchman who had given him his identification tattoo, and eventually began as his assistant. Because he already knew many languages, he was made Auschwitz’s main tattooist after the original mysteriously disappeared.
In 1942, Sokolov emblazoned “34902” onto the shaking arms of a beautiful young girl named Gita. He began sneaking her letters and extra food rations, and a clandestine romance began. For the rest of this international bestseller, Morris tells the story of how Sokolov and Gita’s love survived in the worst circumstances imaginable. She also tells the story of how Sokolov used his position – designed as a way to remove the prisoners’ humanity by replacing their name with numbers – to help his fellow prisoners survive.
As Morris worked with Sokolov, he told her about another prisoner in a position of power who he believes saved his life. Sokolov said that a young girl named Cilka Klein interceded on his behalf when he ran afoul of the camp authorities, using her position to convince the commandant to spare his life.
“Lale kept telling me, ‘When you are finished telling my story, you must write the story of Cilka – you must tell the world about the bravest person I ever knew,’” said Morris.
After “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” became an international hit, Morris traveled throughout Eastern Europe talking to people who knew Klein and piecing together a work of fiction based on her life. She was born around 1926 in Bardejov, Slovakia, and was known as a bright, headstrong young girl. In 1942, her family was sent to Auschwitz, where everyone was murdered but her. Klein was able to become kapo – a Jewish guard – after currying favor with an SS guard who repeatedly raped her, a common and grossly underreported phenomenon of Nazi concentration camps. After three years of this hell, which included watching her own mother die under her guard, Klein was accused by the Soviet liberators of being a collaborator, and sentenced to 10 more years in a Soviet gulag in Siberia.
When the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz in 1945, Klein was charged with prostituting herself to the enemy, and sent to a work gulag in Siberia. She befriended the other women in her hut, and trained to be a nurse with a female doctor. Like Sokolov, Klein also met the person she would marry while in a camp.
After Stalin died and Khrushchev sought better relationships with the West, Klein and her husband traveled back to Slovakia, where she lived a quiet life as a nurse, and kept her past and her Jewish heritage largely secret. She wanted very much to have children, but that was not physically possible after all the abuse she’d suffered. So she became everyone’s mother, caring for local children and neighbors.
“I will not judge [them] for a second,” said Morris about Klein and Sokolov’s actions during the war. You did what you needed to survive, and until you can walk in the shoes of the people who were in those camps, nobody gets to judge.”
Morris’s scheduled visit to Salem on March 19th was postponed.