Heather Morris’ bestseller, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, is the true story of a remarkably resilient and resourceful man. It forms the centerpiece of the Wilton Library’s noted Wilton Reads series this year as the series addresses the Holocaust. There will be a presentation by the author at a major event at the Library on April 11, and a book discussion of it led by Susan Boyar the day before.
For the Wilton Reads series, the library is working in close cooperation with our schools and with the annual Interfaith Series the library co-sponsors with the Wilton Clergy Association and Wi-ACT. On March 5, that series heard Dr. Fariborz Mokhtari, author of In the Lion’s Shadow, speak about Muslim Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari’s saving of Jews during the Holocaust by issuing over 2,000 diplomatic passes from his post in Nazi-occupied Paris and acting with great courage and ingenuity to facilitate escape from Nazi-controlled lands.
The tattooist of Auschwitz, Ludwig (Lale) Eisenberg, was 26 when he entered the camps. He had to have been truly remarkable to have survived three years at the Birkenau concentration camp, dividing his tattooing between there and the Auschwitz camp 2 1/2 miles away. Like Stamford resident Judith Altmann (a camp survivor as a teenager who has spoken before multiple school and faith institution groups here in Wilton even as she has done the same around the world, and will be doing so again at Middlebrook School this spring), Lale survived in significant part because of his language skills, encompassing as they did German, Russian, French, Polish, and Hungarian as well as his native Czech. They enabled him to be a communicator for the Nazis among inmates drawn in vast numbers from all across Europe.
Gita Fuhrmannova, was 17 on arrival at Auschwitz. Lale fell in love with her the moment he laid eyes on her. Though completely shorn of her hair, Gita’s deep brown eyes captivated him. He had no choice but to impose on her the pain of tattooing her number as she presented her arm to him as required of every inmate.
At the chief tattooist, Lale held a somewhat privileged position among camp inmates that gave him some freedom of movement not only between the two camps but also within each. With that movement came the chance to see Gita who also had a somewhat privileged position as a recordkeeper in Auschwitz’s administration building. His permitted movement also gave Lale the opportunity to barter for food with ordinary German masonry workers who, as it turned out, were building the first crematoria of Hitler’s Final Solution. Lale traded food (life itself given the starvation rations in the camps) for jewels smuggled to him by women prisoner friends of Gita’s who worked in the sorting rooms where the seized possessions of new prisoners were processed by the Nazis. Lale would distribute that food among his fellow blockmates and to Gita and her friends. When Gita became desperately ill with typhus, Lale bartered jewels for penicillin, and that, combined with her friends’ tender care, saved her life.
Lale’s somewhat privileged position didn’t save him from constant heartbreak: he was for some months housed in a cell block with a group of gypsy families, also among Hitler’s despised peoples, and formed especially close ties with their children. He was devastated when one night they were all hauled away for gassing, yet another of the camp’s unimaginable and endless horrors.
Through it all, Lale’s many acts of kindness to others (often at grave risk to himself), and kindnesses to him by others (including from those unlikely masonry workers) saved the lives of Gita, himself, and others. He could have horded what he bartered, but he did not, and his leadership skills molded in the camps held him in good stead after war’s end.
Even though separated in the final chaotic and desperate months before liberation, he and Gita reunited at war’s end through a series of ingenious acts of initiative and enterprise. They emigrated to Australia and remained devoted to each other until death took Gita in 2003. Lale died three years later, but not before passing on this remarkable story of courage and love.
Special note: Wilton lost a tremendous force for the good in the passing of Buck Griswold last month. The way Buck always did things — with grace yet firmness, with eloquence directed at subjects for which he cared with such passion, and with unflagging energy, initiative and creativity — offered a deeply valued example to us all. A celebration of his life will take place March 30, at Wilton Congregational Church with a reception to follow at Waveny House in New Canaan.