Few authors can boast such an impactful debut book as Heather Morris. The Tattooist of Auschwitz has sold over three million copies globally since its publication last year, captivating readers with the remarkable story of concentration camp internee, Lale Sokolov. Written from the first hand accounts of Sokolov, as told to Morris in a friendship that evolved over a number of years, The Tattooist of Auschwitz recalls the horror of life in the camp, but also the story of enduring love between Sokolov and the woman who would become his wife, Gita.
Morris’ second book, the much anticipated Cilka’s Journey is released in October 2019 and in that same month she appeared here at Southbank Centre as part of London Literature Festival to discuss both works. Ahead of that appearance Morris kindly paid us a short visit, and we began by asking the author about her first impressions of being asked by Lale to write and tell his story.
“When I first met him it was purely because he asked for somebody to tell his story. Gita had just died, and all he wanted to do was join her. But he wanted someone to the story of this young girl, whose arm he held while he tattooed and stabbed numbers into it, and whose eyes he’d looked into and fallen in love. And to him, him being the tattooist was secondary to wanting to share with the world this beautiful young girl, and how he felt about her”.
“Over time, visiting him two or three times a week, he started to move away from that stabbing pain of grief. And after he met my family, that helped him understand who I was and get that level of trust. He had to learn to trust me, because before that he was just giving me clinical facts; ‘There was this person’, ‘I saw this’, ‘I saw that’ – there was no emotion”.
Lale may have been willing to tell his story, but finding a safe way to reach it and understand it wasn’t easy. How do you encourage someone who has lived through the horrors of Auschwitz Birkenau, to open up more and connect with the emotion of it, without reawakening the trauma? For Morris, this meant drawing on her own professional experience to help her get to know Lale, and for Lale to get to know her, without pushing him a step too far.
“I worked in the social work department of a large hospital in Melbourne, so it did give me the necessary skills to be able to observe him, to be able to know when, in my opinion, he'd said enough. I knew never to leave him in that headspace that he'd been talking about. As I got to know him, I got to know what it was he liked outside of his home, and for the most part it was sport. So I would look for that appropriate moment and I'd say, ‘anyway, do you reckon your team is going to win on Saturday, or is mine gonna whip your ass?’ So we’d spend the next 10 to 15 minutes talking about anything but the Holocaust. Then I could leave.”
But for all Morris’ patience and professional experience, it was a completely unplanned moment that led to Lale finally deciding that he could safely open up to her, and talk her through his life and love for Gita.
“Lale had two dogs, Tootsie and Bamm-Bamm, and whenever we sat down in his apartment they would take turns bringing a tennis ball to him; he would just throw it over his shoulder and they'd chase after it. One day he reached down to take the ball from Tootsie and she growled at him. I'd never heard these dogs bark let alone growl. Then she turned around and put her head on my knee, and when I reached down to take the ball out of her mouth she let it go. When I threw it over my shoulder and the dogs chased after it Lale turned to me and said, ‘Ah, my doggies like you. I like you. You can tell my story’”.
“It was like flipping a light switch. That was the moment he decided he was in fact going to tell me the emotional, the gut-wrenching horrors, that he had experienced and witnessed. And after another couple of weeks, he stopped uttering the words ‘I want to be with Gita’, and he started to live again, and reconnect with the Jewish community. He’d started to unburden, and I watched the physical and emotional changes in him.”
“He’d agree to go out and have coffee, which I was thankful for, because he made the worst coffee. He never once asked me how I liked it, I was just presented with this lukewarm pale hot water. So we’d go out and have coffee and so began the next two and a half years of this amazing friendship. And it wasn't about getting his story anymore. It was about friendship.”
“I got to meet many of his friends, many of whom are also survivors. And my gosh how lucky was I, to suddenly find myself surrounded by people who not only knew him now, as an old man, but many of them had also known him in Auschwitz Birkenau. I talked to his friends and they shared with me not only their stories of Lale and Gita, but they also talked about Cilka.”
Cilka, a Slovakian teenager, also held at Auschwitz during Lale’s time there is the subject of Morris’ second book; the much anticipated Cilka’s Journey. So what was it that intrigued the author about this young woman’s story, and made her want to tell it?
“Lale's words to me, the first time he mentioned her name. He said ‘did I tell you about Cilka? She was this tiny little thing, and yet she was the bravest person – not the bravest girl – but the bravest person I ever met, and she saved my life’. And so I'd keep coming back to her, and gradually he told me more; what it was she was doing in Birkenau, and the block that she lived in”.
“I heard more about her from other survivors. One man in particular came from the same town as Cilka, and had been on the same transport as her. They were teenagers from a small town, they had no idea of this big horrible world. When I was talking to him he would say ‘she did terrible things’. I’d ask him what. ’She had to sleep with that guy. She lived by sleeping with that guy’. I would say, ‘so was she doing the terrible things or was he doing the terrible things?’ And he'd go, ‘OK he was. But she was good to me, she got me extra food, and in winter she got me extra clothes’”.
“Through the stories of others I learned she was in a privileged position, being protected by the commandant, which gave her access to food, to clothing. It also made her a target of course. And in testimonies that I've read, and I've read many about her, some women say things like ‘we saw her in the middle of winter with a warm coat’. And there was an anger, because she was surviving. They would say she was the ‘girlfriend’ of the commandant, would point the finger and say she was sleeping with the enemy. But she wasn't a ‘girlfriend’, she was surviving because she was being raped.”
“I remember one of the testimonies I read from a woman who had been in the camp a long time; in her testimony, several years after liberation, she made the comment ‘We were all angels in there, once we got out’. And went on to say, ‘we all did things we're not proud of and that we would never have done under other circumstances. But the only way we can live with that is to deny them”.
Though it may be hard to imagine given its incredible global success, Lale Sokolov’s story was never intended to be told in a book. Morris, when not a social worker, was a screenwriter, and so in her mind, The Tattooist of Auschwitz was always destined to be, first and foremost, a screenplay, even if it took Lale a little time to get to grips with the prospect.
“Every time I arrived he greeted me with ‘have you finished my book yet?’. And I would say, ‘Lale it's not a book, I keep telling you, I'm writing a screenplay,’ and he would just ignore that. Then one day it clicked and he said ‘Ah a movie. Well who will play me?’ and he got totally caught up in the notion of somebody playing Lale Sokolov, and he would talk about himself in the third person”.
And who did Lale Sokolov wish to see taking on the role of Lale Sokolov?
“His initial reaction was ‘Brad Pitt! You give me Brad Pitt! He's a good looking boy, I'm a good looking boy’. So we then started many, many weeks, several months actually, of having to go to the movies, because he wanted to find the perfect person. I’d say ‘what about this guy?’ He'd just roll his eyes at me, ‘What are you thinking?’”
“Finally, I took him to a film, because there was an American actor I thought was perfect; James Marsden. Tall, dark and handsome. And Lale was always telling me that he was tall, dark and handsome, even though he was shorter than I was. Anyway, Marsden comes on screen, and I dig Lale in the ribs, and, even though it was dark, I know he rolled his eyes at me. But a few minutes later Ryan Gosling was on the screen… Lale was on his feet. ‘That's me. He should be me,’ and he's screaming out in this theatre full of people. ‘Hey you, you down the front. Turn around and look at me. Don't you think he looks like me?’”
So, when exactly did The Tattooist of Auschwitz go from being this remarkable screenplay, with Ryan Gosling in its lead role, to becoming the novel we now know?
“When I got the rights back. It was optioned as a screenplay in Australia for six or seven years, and I took the rights back because the production company couldn't get the funding. I put it into some screenwriting competitions in the US and had positive replies, but nothing came of them. Then I was visiting my brother and sister-in-law and I was bemoaning the fact those people in Hollywood didn't know a good story if it hit them over the head, when my sister-in-law leaned over the table and said ‘Oh for goodness sake Heather, write the bloody thing as a book and get on with it’”.
And write the bloody thing she most certainly did, to incredible success. There are many narratives at play in The Tattooist of Auschwitz, all expertly weaved together, but there’s no escaping the love story at its heart. What made Morris want to tell a love story?
“If you've got a love story that is part of the big picture, of course you're going to gravitate towards its significance. But to me, and what has played out with people who've contacted me about it, is, yes the love story is there and it's beautiful to read about this man and woman who found each other, but what people are taking from that book is the hope. That these two did survive and had a good life. I’ve had so many stories come my way from people who have their own tragedy or trauma in their life, who’ve said your book has given me hope. Because Lale and Gita survived, I can too”.
“In his book, The Night, Elie Weisel used the phrase ‘hope is the last thing to die’. There’s one girl in America just recently whose brother was collateral damage in a shooting, and was killed. And it affected her. Why would this beautiful young boy get killed? Because he's in the wrong place at the wrong time. And she'd wanted to give up. And she read the book, And it helped her”.
It’s something that perhaps isn’t considered often, the weight of a story on it’s storyteller. But since sharing Lale’s past, Morris has found herself the recipient of an unending correspondence, from people who wish to share their own story, a tale of how The Tattooist… connected with them, or occasionally seeking something greater.
“A few weeks ago I had an email from a lady from Germany in her early fifties who had recently found out her grandfather had been responsible for building the crematoria and electric fences in Birkenau. And this woman wrote to me so traumatised, saying I cannot move on. And she was asking me to forgive her, because I knew Lale. And so would I forgive her for the sins of her grandfather? It was an incredible letter.
I wrote back to her and said let me tell you about the first day I met Lale. I had to tell him, because it may have made a difference, that my mother's maiden name was Schwarzfeger. He just raised his eyebrows at me, I think it was the first time he actually looked up and made eye contact with me. And he went ‘Ahh German,’ and I said yeah, and he went ‘OK we can't choose our parents.’ And so I said to her ‘you're asking me to forgive you for the sins of your grandfather, it's not going to happen. Here's what Lale would have said. We can't choose our parents. Your dad couldn't choose his father. You couldn't choose yours’. We've since exchanged further emails and she's still wanting to do things for the Jewish community, even though she's not Jewish, and I just encourage her. But my goodness, you do not need forgiveness”.
It seems somewhat remiss to talk about the effect the book had on other people, without also asking the effect it had on its author. To go from having never written a book before, to having sold over three million copies worldwide, how does that feel?
“I can't process the numbers and the stats and so I don't even try. I have friends back in Australia who were writers, and have been doing it for 20 years, and they kind of just look at me and say, you know this is not fair, you haven't paid your dues. So all I can do is try and be humble to the stories that I've been privileged to be given, and tell”.
As someone who has come to novel writing late, and yet so incredibly successfully is there any advice she would give to other aspiring writers finding it hard to break through?
“Find another way. I had to. I didn't come to this through traditional lines, I didn't have an agent. And I felt I'm getting too long in the tooth to just send it out and get a rejection letter in six months time. Instead I put it out into the world on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding campaign, and in time publishers came to me. So my advice is look for other ways. If traditional access is not working for you, find something else, write a screenplay. Can it be adapted? And by doing that you can put screenplays into competitions too”.
As well as being translated into more than 17 languages, The Tattooist of Auschwitz has also been adapted into a special YA edition, which features extra historical context in the form of a short essay from a lecturer on the Holocaust and additional photos and documents from Lale and Gita’s life. The reception to it has already proved positive.
“I've had young ten, eleven, twelve year olds who've read it, write to me and say ‘here's my mom's email address, would you please write and tell her she has to take me to Auschwitz, I really need to see it’. I’ve had many emails like that, they dob me into their parents thinking I've got some clout over them. But, young people now want to go and learn more and that can only be a good thing”.
Heather Morris joined us here at Southbank Centre on 22 October as part of London Literature Festival to talk more about her remarkable books, From The Tattooist of Auschwitz to Cilka's Journey.
The venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International, Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.