The two novels wrote by Australian author Heather Morris quickly became bestsellers. “The Auschwitz Tattooist” and “Cilka’s Journey” are journeys into the hells of Nazi and Soviet concentration and extermination camps, the journeys of people who, with their own means, managed to survive. Written for a wider audience, based on real facts (including discussions with these survivors), they managed to impress the audience. In Romanian, the two novels were translated by Humanitas Fiction Publishing House, whom we thank for mediating this long online interview, from which you will find out how the writer meets her characters and reveals their secrets. (The Romanian translation of this interview appeared here.)
– How have you found out about Lale Sokolov, got to meet him and become the chronicler of his life, swept off your feet by this ”old sly fox’ charm” – as you wrote in your Author’s Note?
A friend I met up with for a coffee one day casually said to me ‘I have a friend whose mother has just died. His father has asked him to find someone who is not Jewish to tell a story to’. She asked me if I would meet him even though she did not know what he wanted to talk to someone about, and I said yes. For many months he was grieving terribly, would hardly look at me and spoke in a rambling often incoherent manner. Slowly as he got to know me, we became friends and he became part of my family. He charmed everyone he met and yes, I loved him. He would joke with my husband; she may be your wife but she my girlfriend. His reference to having me go with him for coffee, to movies, to social functions in the Jewish community.
– When you first met Sokolov face to face, weren’t you amazed by his enthusiasm and by his quick acceptance of your becoming his memorialist, while he found out that ”you didn’t know any Jew”, and that ”you didn’t have any personal baggage”? How did you react to his question: ”How quick can you write?”
I can’t honestly say he was enthusiastic; he was grief stricken and wanting to die and be with Gita. For many months what he told me was said, clinically, factually with little emotion. It was only after he got to know me, he spoke with emotion and passion and told me the deeply personal horrors he had witnessed and experienced. The story I got from him in the first six months, while still fascinating, is nothing like the story I eventually wrote. He held tightly to talking about many things. His interactions with Mengele, his love for the Gypsy people he lived with, his intimate time with Gita. It was of the utmost importance to him I wasn’t Jewish so I could tell his story without any personal background or connection to the Holocaust. As our friendship developed, he stopped asking how quick can you write, he was happy to be with me, talk to me, go out with me knowing I was writing as quickly as I could. Given he would always say the words ‘did I tell you about’ to me then go on to tell me something new, he realized it was going to take some time for him to unburden and fully tell his story.
– During the three years of Lale Sokolov’s confessions, have you personally researched the topic of the Holocaust and the extermination camps, Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2 (Auschwitz-Birkenau)?
Absolutely I did. Both personally, with my limited knowledge of researching, particularly in languages I could not understand, and professional researchers in Germany and Poland were engaged to confirm as much as possible Lale’s story, and find and send to us the handful of documents relating to Lale that they found.
– How was it visiting Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland and seeing with your own eyes, feeling with all your senses the (even now) hallucinating atmosphere of those death empires? Did you also visit Yah Vashem, in Jerusalem, or the Holocaust Museum in Washington? What do you think of them?
I first went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 2018, just after the book was released. It was important for me not to visit there while I was writing as I wanted to describe the place through Lale’s words and eyes, how he remembered it as an 88-year-old man. On that day I was numb, I struggled to feel anything. I walked around in a daze knowing where certain parts of the camp where because Lale had described it to me. Only when I stood on the spot marked as where the Tattooist performed his role did I break down emotionally, knowing I was standing on the exact spot Lale would have stood so many times. I could not enter the penal unit where I know he was beaten and interrogated for 6 weeks. I could not enter the crematoria at Auschwitz where I knew his parents had died. I have visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – what an amazing place. They told me there they proudly sell my book in both English and Hebrew. It is very easy to viscerally connect to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust while there. I have yet to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, but have visited museums in many other cities, like New York, Houston and many other American cities, plus London, Cape Town and Melbourne and Sydney in Australia. May they all stand forever as a place of learning and reflection.
– We have asked the previous question in order to know if you ever doubted what was narrated to from a personal or historical point of view; or did you have all the trust in the memory and the good faith of the narrator? As such, have you considered that the personal memory, conjugated with the interlocutor’s psychology, is sine qua non extracted from the true and dramatic history of the Shoah? The simple and clear writing, with no flourishes and stylistic exaggerations, sometimes fragmented, other times fluid, is very powerful in revealing, by contrast, the entire horror of what you describe. Was it a reflection of the meetings and sessions with Lale, and the way his memory has brought his life experience to light?
It is wonderful when history and memory walk side by side, but there will always be times when they part and do not connect. I have not written the story of the Holocaust but a Holocaust story, Lale’s story. I have been told there is no word in Hebrew for history, that all Jewish stories must come from the memories of those that lived during the times they are recounting. I have met many survivors all of whom tell me their experiences were different to everyone else they knew there, and who they have met since. Researchers were used to prove as best they could many elements of Lale’s story. Many other elements I have not written about because I could not get a secondary piece of proof and I considered what Lale told me historically significant and could not locate him in the story. Since the publication of his story I have been contacted by people from many countries confirming and telling me stories about Lale that are both new to me and confirm storylines of significance he told me. To tell any Holocaust story through the memory of one person elevates the story and makes it relatable with one person identified. So many survivors have told me, Lale’s story is their story, and they are so grateful to have it being told. Videoed oral testimonies by thousands of survivors have been made, each one telling the one story. I chose to tell his story in simple language, using words and descriptions in Lale’s voice, as he told it to me, and how I heard it. I initially wrote his story as a screenplay and he read many drafts of that document. He was working with a local film production company to try and make it into a film, and all aspects of his story he agreed with and verified to others. He was upset that I left parts out that he considered significant, but as I have said, we could not find at the time, confirmation of his memory.
– In an interview in November 2018 you told New York Times: “I have written a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust. I have written Lale’s story (…) The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.” Your book is fiction, fueled by and rooted in the tough reality. Should the readers or imagine how much of it is truth, and how much fiction? Or focus should be on Lale experience , maybe on wondering how they would react in a similar situation? Is this one of the goals of literature? Triggering an introspection of our own minds, questioning the ease we have in judging others?
I attempted to tell Lale’s story as a memoir but found the constraints of not being able to have dialogue, or Gita as a separate character, was not allowing me to tell Lale’s story as he told it to me. Only once in the book did I create a situation for Lale, that was putting him and Gita together when the Allie planes flew over Birkenau. Every other aspect of the story is how he remembered and experienced that time. In essence, it is Lale’s factual story written in a fictional manner to use dialogue to strengthen the emotions of Lale and Gita. I know many times as I was hearing his stories I would wonder, what would I do if I was in his place? I am very vocal about my not judging Lale or any other survivor, and will not hear judgement by others about survivors and what they did, or didn’t do, to survive the Holocaust.
– One would almost always expect a darker story on such a dark subject. Did you intentionally choose to make love an important part of the story, or it just came this way from Lale’s memories?
Telling the world about the girl, whose hand Lale held, dressed in rags and head unshaven, was the story Lale wanted me to tell. It was all about finding the love of his life and their time together in Birkenau that was important to him.
– Given all the implications, what was the most difficult part of you & Lale interacting, so that you may have been ”true” to him in your story?
As Lale and my relationship became a caring friendship I struggled to listen to him talking about his past and connecting the pain and trauma he had suffered with the beautiful old man sitting next to me. There was a period when the more he wanted to talk, the less I wanted to hear. His pain and trauma were transferring to me. I was reminded by a friend that I had no right to own any of his pain. I could not tell his story as if it was happening to a third person, I had to stay true to his story and the horrific experiences he had witnessed and been part of. It helped that he could give me a hug and reassure me he was okay; he had survived and was here now talking to me and grateful to be sharing his story.
Lale was very clear to me once he opened up and told me about Cilka, the bravest person he ever met, that after I had told his story I must tell the world about Cilka. I always hoped I could fulfil the promise to him that I would do my best.
– We know that Lale hesitated to tell his story for a very long time for fear that even his own people would judge him. Do you think that it’s natural for characters such as Lale or Cilka to be stigmatized for the way they survived the camps?
The main reason Lale had not spoken about his past was because Gita did not want him to. She had managed to shut down her past and never spoke about it, even to their son. Lale was concerned that any stigma or criticism that might come his way would also be directed at Gita. There was no way he would ever allow that to happen while she was alive. I am delighted to say that he got it wrong. No-one has said to me they considered him anything but a man who did what he could to survive and help others, and every survivor I have met and their families, feel the same way. No-one gets to judge Holocaust survivors, for surviving.
– How much have the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Varlam Shalamov inspired you?
These are two very powerful authors in sharing the horrors of the evil past they were part of. While my writing style is very different, I am empowered by them to tell the truths of survivors as told to me. That their descriptions of evil mirrors what I have been told, is no comfort to me.
– Are there more resources for future novels in Lale’s stories from the years you spent together? What are you currently working on?
Yes. My first non-fiction title Stories of Hope is about to be released in some territories. However, my next novel is the story of three sisters who survived the Holocaust, their story of survival in Birkenau, and afterward the war is just remarkable. They knew Gita, they remembered Lale tattooing their numbers.
– Do you think that your novels, written for a wider audience, can make the average reader eager to look into the real history of totalitarian regimes?
I know they do. So many readers have written to me telling me how they are now doing further research into the Holocaust and the Gulag period. They need to know more; they want to know more. As they write to me, they want to be aware so they can play their part in making sure it is never forgotten and never happens again.
– Did you expect the extraordinary success of your books? What can you tell us about the manner your books were received in various cultures? Do you know which of the translations had the greatest impact?
No, I did not. My intention was to self-publish and print 100 copies to give away to family and friends. However, we have been published in over 50 countries and 47 languages. I have been truly humbled by the success of Lale’s book. The sales have been amazing reaching six million worldwide. I spend a lot of time on Google translate, translating the many emails I receive from all over the world. I have been told that The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been very well received in so many countries – Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia of course, and in Japan, Brazil, South Korea and South Africa and countless others.
– Thank you very much.
(Questions from Delia Marc, Iulia Dromereschi, Jovi Ene. Photo: LibHumanitas.ro, The Guardian)