It’s not often that a chance encounter and an ability to really listen result in the sale of six million books.
But so it was for Heather Morris, whose debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, went on to spend more than 52 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list while picking up countless awards across the globe.
Morris was working at a public hospital in Melbourne when she first met Lale Sokolov, a real-life concentation camp tattooist. The pair struck up an unlikely friendship and the novel, and its sequel, Cilka’s Journey, form a fictionalised account of the stories he shared with her.
Now, in her first work of non-fiction, Stories of Hope, released today, Morris tells the tale of their meetings, and unpacks the life lessons to be learned from listening intently. Here, in an exclusive extract from the book, she recounts their first meeting…
In December 2003, I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a few months. Over coffee and a chat, she casually said to me, “You’re interested in writing screenplays, aren’t you? I have a friend whose mother has just died. His father, aged 87, has asked him to find someone he can tell a story to – that person can’t be Jewish. You’re not Jewish, would you like to meet him?” I asked her if she knew what the story was about and she said no, not really. Intrigued, I said yes. A week later, on a sunny, Southern Hemisphere summer Sunday afternoon, I left home to meet Lale Sokolov.
Happy Hanukkah. Haapppy Hanukkah! I rehearse this foreign phrase while driving to my meeting. Hanukkah I know vaguely to be the Jewish festival of lights. Through suburbs, their streets festooned with Christmas decorations, I ponder what my opening line should be. Can my Kiwi accent pull off a heartfelt ‘Happy Hanukkah’ without sounding silly? Oh, but wait… The man I’m meeting has recently lost his wife. Maybe using a phrase which includes the word ‘happy’ is inappropriate. My mood changes. No longer do the sparkling wreaths, sleigh bells and jolly santas surrounding me make me smile. My approaching destination now fills me with apprehension.
The door opens, revealing a small, thin, elderly gentleman. Two dogs, one on each side, form a guard. One of the dogs is no bigger than my cat; the other is the size of a small pony, but nowhere near as friendly-looking. “I am Lale, these are my kiddos, Tootsie and Bam Bam.”
This seems to serve sufficiently as an introduction as the next word is “Come”, which comes out not so much as an invitation as an order. They all turn abruptly and shuffle in single file down the corridor. After shutting the door, I follow. I’ve not been given a chance for any greeting and I’ve not worked out which name belongs to which kiddo.
The convoy enters an immaculate room, which is a shrine to the 1960s. It stops at a superbly polished large dining table. “Sit.” This is a directive, with a chosen chair at the table pointed out to me. I sit. Satisfied, Lale and the kiddos shuffle off into an adjacent room.
A few minutes later, Lale and the kiddos triumphantly reappear. A cup and saucer, a side plate with six wafer biscuits neatly presented on it are placed before me. Lale sits to my right, the kiddos stand guard either side.
“Have you had these before?” he asks, indicating the biscuits.
“Yes, wafer biscuits are one of the few things you can still get that I remember from my childhood.”
“But I bet they weren’t these biscuits…”
Once again, I’m left alone as the three of them shuffle off once more to the kitchen. They all reappear, and a biscuit packet is placed before me. The comings and goings are starting to unsettle me and I’m unsure what to say in case they all disappear again.
“There, have you had these before?” he repeats.
Sitting, the kiddos now lie down, one either side of him, their eyes still firmly on me. “No, I’m pretty sure I’ve not had this brand before.”
“Didn’t think so. They’re from Israel, see. You can’t read that, can you?”
I turn the packet over, looking at the foreign writing. “I’m guessing that’s Hebrew writing, so no, I can’t read it, but I can tell you they’re bloody good biscuits!”
The first hint of a smile. “How quick can you write?”
“I can’t answer that question, it depends on what I’m writing.”
“Well, you better be quick because I don’t have much time.”
First hint of panic. I had deliberately chosen not to bring any writing material with me, I just wanted to listen to the story I had been requested to hear and consider writing about. Glancing at my watch, I ask him: “I’m sorry, how much time do you have?”
“Do you have to be somewhere else?”
“Yes, I need to be with my Gita.”
I try to make eye contact with this frail 87-year-old man who has just uttered his recently deceased wife’s name. His head remains bowed. “Mr Sokolov, I don’t want to upset you. If you don’t want to talk to me that’s ok, you make good coffee and I’m really enjoying your biscuits.”
But I was lying to him – this was the first of what would be many, many bad cups of coffee Lale would make for me.
“You never met Gita, did you?”
“Would you like to see her picture?”
Before I can answer, he and his companions are on their feet again, heading towards a nearby cabinet, housing a large television and a photo of Gita and Lale. Handing me the photo, he said: “She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I held her hand and looked into her frightened eyes and I tattooed numbers on her arm. Did you know that? Did you know I was the Tattooist in Auschwitz?”
Riveted by the photo of the smiling, seventy something Gita, sat next to this beautiful man, his arm around her, I am stunned, silent, not yet taking in what he is telling me.
The photo is put back in its place, positioned just so. I notice both it and the television are lined up for perfect viewing from a nearby recliner chair. “Since you’ve come here, I should tell you my story, no?”
“Only if you want to.”
I look down at his companions, who now look as though they may be asleep.
“I was a good-looking guy back then.” Rifling through his wallet, he pulls out an ageing passport photo and hands it to me. A handsome, smiling 24-year-old Ludwig Eisenberg looks back at me – he later told me how he changed his name to Sokolov after the war, in order to sound ‘Russian’, and I guess also to conceal that he was Jewish. No, more than handsome, in the one photo I see arrogance, self-assuredness; he is cheeky, suave, a man confident of who he is and his place in the world.
“I was a mumma’s boy. I’ve always known it, never denied it.”
For the next two hours I sat listening as Lale spoke, recounting snippets of stories, fragmented, often told at bullet pace with limited coherency and no flow or connection linking them. He slipped out of English into what I guessed was Slovakian, sometimes German and occasionally some Russian and Polish. The kiddos hadn’t moved but eventually I sensed that Lale was getting restless, tired. When he said he had been the Tätowierer in Auschwitz, I interrupted to ask what he meant. He looked at me as if I was stupid. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had interrupted him, or I should have known what he was referring to.
“Tattooist, I was the tattooist in Auschwitz-Birkenau – I made the numbers,” he explained patiently. “I made her number. I held her hand while I made her number and I looked into her eyes.” He didn’t need to say who he was talking about. “I knew then, I knew in that second, that I could never love another.”
Stories of Hope: Finding Inspiration in Everyday Lives by Heather Morris is published today by Manilla Press (£14.99). Buy your copy here.