This novel was first published in 2018, but I don’t remember hearing about it at the time. The title caught my attention, particularly when the cover says it is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov.
The author is Heather Morris, a New Zealander now living in Australia. While working in a large hospital in Melbourne, she studied and wrote screenplays. She was introduced to Lale Sokolov in 2003, and she originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay before reshaping it into her debut novel.
Lale was born Ludwig Eisenberg in 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia. He was Jewish and was transported to Auschwitz in April 1942, where he was tattooed with the number 32407. Lale’s parents were transported to Auschwitz in March 1942, while Lale was still in Prague. They were murdered on arrival in Auschwitz. In early 1945, Lale is herded on a train which takes him to Austria where he is made to work as a pimp in a German officers’ quarters. In April he escapes and boards a train to Bratislava, where, eventually he meets Gita, proposes and they marry. Lale changes his name to Sokolov. In 1949 they move to Australia, where Gita became a dress designer and Lale was in the textile trade. Their son, Gary, was born in 1961. Gita died in 2003 and Lale in 2006.
Most of the novel concerns Lale’s experiences in Auschwitz, where he was selected to be a tattooist, placing the required numbers on the arms of new arrivals. As a tattooist, he had an improved living status, and access to staff working in the office, as well as to the female barracks, where he meets and falls in love with Gita. His female friends provide him with jewellery, which has been confiscated from the arriving Jews, in exchange for additional food, and in Gita’s case live saving medication. Lale is able to exchange the jewels for food and medicine with Polish workmen in Auschwitz. Lale meets the infamous Dr Mengele, and is tortured when his cache of jewellery is discovered.
The novel faces a difficult task balancing the unethical work which Lale performs as a tattooist and a pimp against his good deeds of providing extra food and medicine with the additional weight of necessary survival. While the book is presented as a novel, it is really a biography of Ludwig Eisenberg, and, as such it is a powerful, well-told story. I felt that sometimes there was not sufficient clarity in the contrast between Lale’s dedicated optimism and the grim pessimism which must have prevailed throughout the camp. Sometimes, the dialogue does not ring true, in the sense that it is tasked with carrying the story further rather than expressing the emotions of the characters.
Overall, a very good read.