HIS needle poised over the young women’s pale forearm, the Tattooist Of Auschwitz felt deep shame.
Lale Sokolov was himself a Jewish inmate in the Nazi death camp where 1.1million perished.
Lale and Gita’s story is proof that love really can conquer all[/caption]
Inking identity numbers on those destined for slave labour and eventually the gas chambers meant he would be allowed to live.
He had imprinted thousands of innocents in a grim pact with SS monsters to keep himself alive.
But number 34902 was different.
When the 26-year-old looked into her “big, black eyes” an overwhelming love filled him in a place where he had witnessed so much evil.
He later said of that first encounter: “I tattooed her number on her left hand and she tattooed her number on my heart.”
Brave Lale went on to discover that her name was Gita and he risked everything to win the affections of the shy 18-year-old with the dazzling eyes.
Author Heather Morris spent three years interviewing Lale about his time in the camp — but every conversation would circle back to Gita.
The personal effects of Jewish victims litter the railway tracks outside of Auschwitz[/caption]
A panoramic view of the sprawling Birkenau concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland[/caption]
Heather recalled: “Lale told me that in that first second he knew he could never love another. He was utterly mesmerised by Gita.”
Born Gisela Furman, Gita had been sent to Lale, a fellow Slovakian, to have her existing tattoo redone because it had faded.
After the inking, smitten Lale was desperate to see her again — so he summoned up the courage to ask a “helpful” SS officer called Baretski to smuggle letters to her in one of the women’s blocks.
Lale described sending the first note as “the best and the most stupid” thing he’d ever done in his life.
Heather said: “He knew he was risking both their lives but he still thought it was worth the risk.”
And it paid off — the letters led to snatched visits outside Gita’s block, where her friends would form a circle around the pair to give them privacy.
The writer continued: “Even when she had her head shaved and was dressed in rags he thought of her as the most beautiful thing he ever saw.”
Yet Gita was initially against a relationship.
Holocaust survivor Meyer Hack shows the prisoner number he had tattooed on his arm[/caption]
Heather, a retired social worker, explained: “What was the point of putting themselves in danger?
That was an astounding feat of optimism from Lale, who had managed a department store before being sent to Auschwitz in April 1942.
On one day alone he watched as all 4,500 gypsy inmates of the camp were sent to the gas chambers.
Lale also had to work with Dr Josef Mengele, the twisted medic who performed agonising and often lethal experiments on the prisoners.
The tattooist was more terrified of Mengele than of any other Nazi in the camp, but was required to stand beside him as he selected victims.
The doctor would lean into Lale and whisper, “One day, tetovierer (tattooist), one day I will take you.”
Heather said: “No one scared Lale like Mengele. He would take out his gun and hold it to Lale’s head.
Dr Josef Mengele, ‘the Angel of Death’, architect of many of the horrors of concentration camps[/caption]
“Lale would drop his tattooing needle because he’d be shaking.”
Despite the wretchedness of his life, Lale always considered himself one of the lucky ones.
His position as the “tetovierer” afforded him privileges — extra food and medicine, and a freedom of movement that allowed his love with Gita to bloom.
Heather said: “He rationalised his role as the tattooist quite well. He said that the people who came to him were lucky too.
Happiness for Lale and Gita, after the war[/caption]
“If you were being numbered that meant they weren’t heading straight to the gas chamber.”
But when Heather tried to get Lale to go into detail about his feelings concerning his role, he would veer off and talk about Gita.
She said: “To him, their love story was all that mattered. I put it to him, ‘Do you realise that you were marking the most iconic symbols of the entire Holocaust?’ He replied, ‘No, it’s about Gita. You tell everyone how much I loved Gita’.”
Lale had been working in Bratislava when he heard that all the Jews in his hometown of Krompachy were to be rounded up to be sent to “labour camps”.
The horror of Auschwitz faded into the past, and Lale and Gita settled in Austria[/caption]
Young and fit, he returned home and offered himself to authorities, hoping he might save his ageing parents from being taken.
He became part of the first transport of Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz, where he was tattooed with the number 32407 and put to work building housing blocks.
Soon afterwards he was approached by the incumbent tattooist, Pepan, who asked if he would work with him. Lale knew five languages — useful in the job.
Pepan disappeared weeks later and Lale was left with the job. He met Gita in July that year.
A big smile from Lale shows that lives were rebuilt after the Holocaust[/caption]
Their courtship lasted three years. Then, in 1945, as Russian troops moved towards the camp in Poland, the prisoners were moved out.
Gita was sent on a so-called Death March along with the other women in the camp, while Lale was moved to a different camp in Mauthausen, Austria.
There he managed escape by swimming across the Danube and made his way home to Slovakia. He learned that his parents had both died in Auschwitz. And he had no idea if Gita was alive.
Desperate, he took a horse and cart to Bratislava, the entry point for many survivors returning home, and waited at the railway station for weeks hoping to spot her.
Then someone told him to look for her at the Red Cross HQ. On the way there, she suddenly appeared in front of his cart.
Heather said: “I honestly worried about that when Lale relayed the story. It’s such a Hollywood ending that I didn’t think people would believe it.
“Remarkably, I have evidence from Gita backing it up.
“While she never spoke about her time in Auschwitz, Lale convinced her to make a testimony to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.
A smiling Gita with baby Gary[/caption]
“In the video footage she said that she remembered walking down the street in Bratislava with two of her friends when one of them pointed out a horse coming down the street towards them with a tiny little cart on the side with this funny man standing on the back.
“She said, ‘I looked up and it was Lale, so I stepped in front of the horse. That is the only time I’ve ever known Lale when he was speechless’.” The pair married in October 1945 and emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where they had a son, Gary, in 1961.
They set up a textile business and made a pact not to tell anyone how they met — with Lale worried he might be seen as a Nazi collaborator because he “helped” them by doing the tattoos.
Even their son didn’t know.
Born at one of the worst moments in human history, Lale and Gita’s love lasted a lifetime[/caption]
But when Gita died in 2003, aged 79, Lale finally felt ready to talk.
Heather recalled: “A friend put us in touch — I knew he had a story to tell but I had no idea what it would be.
“He was obviously an old man and he said we needed to work fast because he was ready to be with his wife again.”
Lale died in 2006, three days after his 90th birthday — and two hours after Heather’s last visit. She said: “The last thing I said to Lale on his last day on earth was, ‘I will never, ever stop telling your story’.”
Lale with author Heather Morris, who has told his story in The Tattooist of Auschwitz[/caption]
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He died too soon to see Heather’s novel become a global smash hit.
But Heather said: “Lale would have been so delighted.
“I have to pinch myself, really. I’m absolutely astonished by the response to this book.
“But I think it’s the hope that’s really resonating with people. Hope out of something so awful.”
- The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, published by Zaffre, is out now in paperback, eBook and audiobook.