Article published on January 5, 2018.
After reading and being incredibly moved by The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Jade Craddock was left with a number of questions for author Heather Morris:
Jade Craddock: Your novel is based on the real-life story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, how did you strike a balance between giving the facts and adding artistic licence?
Heather Morris: My artistic licence came from the need to create names for prisoners, e.g. the men who played soccer with Lale. He couldn’t remember their names. Creating scenes for Baretski and Hoess, which clearly Lale could not have known about, and placing Lale and Gita in scenes together when they weren’t, i.e. together when the US air force flew overhead. Otherwise I went with facts given to me by Lale and backed up by research.
Jade Craddock: How did your friendship with Lale come about and did you have any reservations about taking on his story?
Heather Morris: I had absolutely no reservations about taking on this story, quite the opposite, I felt privileged and humbled to be asked to tell it. I met Lale via an introduction from a friend of mine who had a friend who knew Lale and Gita’s son Gary. Gary had asked his friend if she knew anyone who could write down his father’s story. My friend knew I had written several screenplays and that I liked stories that came from fact/real-life events. These two friends got us together.
Jade Craddock: What was the most important factor in you wanting to be involved in sharing Lale’s story?
Heather Morris: Lale’s need to have his story told so that, in his words, people would learn from his and Gita’s experience and never let it happen again. It didn’t take me long to realise the importance, historically, of what I was hearing. Two hours before he died I held his hand and promised him I would never stop trying to tell his story to an audience.
Jade Craddock: Were you able to separate your two identities, as it were, as Lale’s friend and as author, during the process and was it important to keep them separate?
Heather Morris: Initially I tried to be professional about hearing his story but I very quickly discovered I got more of the deep emotional side of his story sitting in a café, or having a meal after a trip to a movie. If this beautiful old man was going to fully open up to me he had to get to know me the person and that included my family. There is no separation between me the author and me Lale’s friend.
Jade Craddock: How difficult was it for you to hear Lale’s testimony and what did you gain from this first-hand interaction with Lale that you wouldn’t have been able to achieve otherwise?
Heather Morris: After a few weeks of seeing him 2-3 times a week I underwent what is described as ‘transference’ in that Lale began to talk more openly about the horrors he had witnessed and I began to take on board the trauma he had lived. This had an effect on my interaction with my family when I returned from being with him and threatened to derail my telling his story. Thankfully I was able to speak to a friend who works in the mental health field who pointed out what was happening and I developed strategies whereby I did not take home with me anymore the emotional baggage I had heard. It was win/win, I never said anything to Lale and he continued to open up and shed 50 years of terrible memories and lived experiences he had carried. If I had not recognised the ‘transference’ and dealt with it, it is highly likely this story would not exist and I would have settled for a friendship with Lale only.
Jade Craddock: As the title of the novel suggests, we see Lale’s role as tattooist at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a role which is in ways both a blessing and a curse, how important was this identity to Lale and how much did it define him?
Heather Morris: Lale’s identity as the Tattooist totally defined his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau because it gave him that ounce of freedom of movement and access to helping others. There was no aspect of actually doing the tattooing that he liked, quite the opposite, he hated what he was doing, especially marking females. He rationalised it to himself saying, it would be done with or without him. After Auschwitz-Birkenau it in no way defined him. Other than his close friends he never talked about what he did until Gita died and he started talking to me.
Jade Craddock: Lale and Gita’s love story is played out against the backdrop of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s genocide, how difficult was it to balance these two contrasting elements of the story?
Heather Morris: I was lucky that I had the two elements of Lale being this significant person in the Holocaust story and the love story. Neither alone would have provided a story that would show Lale as the caring, romantic, generous soul that he was. The challenge for me was to weave the two elements together to maintain an emotional arc in the story that would want the reader to turn the page. I did not find this difficult at all, I just kept visualizing the love that I saw in Lale as I sat with him, with his trembling hands, his quivering voice, his eyes that moistened sixty years after experiencing the events.
Jade Craddock: Lale and Gita’s story is one largely of triumph against the odds, to what do you account their survival?
Heather Morris: Lale fully conceded that his and Gita’s survival came down to luck, luck and luck, with an element of cunning and a stubbornness on his behalf to be aware at all times of what was going on around him, manipulate people (namely Baretski) where he could. I think he got the balance right. No-one wanted to die there but for the million plus that did, it was out of their hands, they were not weak or lacked any willpower to go on.
Jade Craddock: The history and context of the period is a particularly harrowing one, were you worried about delving into a past which is still so traumatic for so many?
Heather Morris: No. I met many of Lale’s friends who had been through the same experience and found them wanting to tell their story, they were aware of their aging and like Lale, wanted someone to hear what they had gone through. I listened to many of these and hope I did no harm by allowing them to open up. One of the things I did learn when talking to people about traumatic events was to find a way to ‘shut them down’ before leaving them. I’d have them tell me about their family and life now, allowing them to talk about happier times, never leaving them in the head-space of 60 years ago. I have not met anyone to date who was either a survivor, or a family member of a survivor, who has criticised me for asking questions. Quite the opposite.
Jade Craddock: As a reader, Lale and Gita stay with you long after the final page, how difficult was it for you to let go of the story?
Heather Morris: I don’t feel like I have let go of the story. I am talking/writing about it every day as the release of the book approaches and I’m asked to speak at events both within the Jewish community and the writing community. The photograph of Lale and I together that sits on my desk amongst the photos of my family means he still stay in my life forever.
Jade Craddock: I believe the project started out as a screenplay and I personally think the story would be perfect for the big screen, do you still have plans of turning it into a film?
Heather Morris: I’m told the screenplay is being considered in Hollywood. More on that at a later date, hopefully not too much later. Stay tuned as they say.
Jade Craddock: This is your first novel, I understand, but has the experience and process encouraged you to write more or was this such a unique experience that it would be hard to follow?
Heather Morris: I am very lucky to have been contracted to write another story, based on one of the other characters in The Tattooist of Auschwitz, again based on an incredible true story. As the story will come from research and a hoped for meeting with a family member of my main character, it cannot provide me with the same experience I got from having been Lale’s friend for three years.
Jade Craddock: What did you learn from Lale the man and his story?
Heather Morris: Very simply – If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day. But also the value of never giving up, of making your life about your family first and foremost.
Jade Craddock: As we near that point in which we lose those last remaining voices of the generation that experienced the Second World War and Auschwitz-Birkenau, how important is it that we keep their stories alive and do you think enough is done to pass these accounts on to future generations?
Heather Morris: We can never do enough to keep these stories alive and told. Not only the stories of this period of history but also the stories of survival, or the horrors experienced by many people living in conflict zones today. I do shake my head in despair that we don’t seem to learn from the past. I think if we were to find people, preferably young, who are prepared to, say, visit aged people’s/nursing homes and talk to the residents and give them the opportunity to talk about their past, both the teller and the listener would be the better for it.
Jade Craddock: And finally, the reader comes to know Lale through the novel, but you also knew him first-hand, how would you sum him and his life up?
Heather Morris: A life well lived. He loved and he was loved in return. He was charismatic, charming, a flirt, he loved to joke, he loved sport, any sport. In sport he saw men and women striving to be the best they could be, something he saw in himself. Be the best you can, write the best you can he used to say to me.
Our thanks to both Heather and Jade for this Q&A.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Zaffre 9781785763649 hbk Jan 2018
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris