Wilton Reads — Living and loving through the worst of times

If you wake up in the morning, it’s a good day.
It’s hard to believe those words could come from a person who experienced the hell of the Nazi death camps during World War II, but that is how Lale Sokolov who, against all odds, survived three years at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Sokolov is the subject of this year’s Wilton Reads selection, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. She will visit Wilton Library Thursday, "April 11, at 7 p.m. Register: www.wiltonlibrary.org or 203-762-6334.
Her visit will cap more than a month of activities planned to raise awareness of the Holocaust through literature and programming that encourages participants to examine their view of themselves and the world around them.
Morris, who lives in Australia, met Sokolov in 2003. He was 87 years old and his wife Gita had recently died. Their meeting was, as Morris told The Bulletin, “a strange twist of fate.” She had met up for coffee with a friend she had not seen in some time.
“She said, ‘I’ve got a friend whose mother just died,’” referring to Sokolov’s son Gary. “His father has asked him to find someone to write his story,” the friend said.
“I knocked on his door the next week, not knowing the story he wanted to tell, and so began three years with this amazing man,” Morris said. Sokolov wanted her to write a memoir but she couldn’t. “I could not have written anything he did not witness himself,” she said. What Morris produced was a novel of historical fiction.
“Everything in the book I write when Lale is in the picture is true, his memory, what happened to him,” Morris said. “The facts and timing of the picture of the camp, they happened exactly at the time I portray it.”
What is fictionalized is the conversation among characters. Other scenes, such as when she portrays the SS having a fine meal, were crafted from reading factual documents about how they lived, she said.
The story Morris eventually wrote is a love story of two young people — Lale and Gita, also a prisoner — trying to survive against all odds, but working on it was slow going at first, she said, as she heard half stories and little vignettes. “I was aware I was sitting with living history,” she said.
There were many times she wondered if she’d get the emotional story.
“He got to know me and that was it,” she said. “He had to know my family and who I was and only then could he trust and tell me the whole story. That was a good four to five months in the making,” she said.
Sokolov nearly died several times at Birkenau and twice he was “saved” by fellow inmates, but mostly it was his job as the Tätowierer (tattooist) that not only kept him alive but afforded him a few privileges. Those he used to help others, such as sharing the extra food rations he received, and getting Gita moved from hard labor to a clerical job.
While the process of getting Sokolov’s story could be emotionally draining, there were lighter moments. Morris originally wrote the story as a movie script and when he heard that, Sokolov’s first concern was which actor would play him.
“I was a good-looking boy, you get me Brad Pitt,” she recalled him saying. When Morris told him Pitt was too old, Sokolov became “obsessed” and they went to any number of movies checking out actors, all of whom he dismissed.
Then they went to a film with James Marsden and Ryan Gosling. When Morris pointed Marsden out “he looked at me as if to say, ‘what are you thinking?’” she said. But when Gosling came on screen, that was it.
“He jumped up and started asking people in the theater, ‘don’t you think he looks like me?’” she said. He was so comedically persistent the audience finally gave him a round of applause to quiet him. “No one but Natalie Portman should play Gita,” Morris said with a laugh.
If anyone questions the relevance of a story that is more than 70 years old, they need only ask Morris about experiences she’s had with fans of her book, which was published in 2018.
Last year, she was invited to a men’s prison in London, because some of the inmates had read the book and were talking about how it affected them. Over the course of several hours that she spoke to them, many told her the book gave them hope that they could eventually leave prison, as Lale had done.
“They were weeping and comforting each other. It was an incredible scene,” she said of the men who were imprisoned for violent crimes. At the end when they were told they could take a book, they asked her things like “could you sign it to my mum and say I’m sorry and I’ll never come back here” and “would you make this out to my wife and say I’m sorry she’s having to raise our children alone.”
Last April, Morris visited Auschwitz for a March of the Living event and was asked by the American contingent to speak to a group of 16- and 17-year-olds. The book had not yet been published here, so they knew nothing of it.
The group had returned to Krakow, Poland, and after dinner they sat on the grass of a local community center as she stood on the steps and began to speak to about 400 young people. Afterwards, some of the counselors came and said they were “blown away” by the rapt attention the students paid to her.
They took a few students aside and asked what had held their attention and they responded, “You keep telling us about six million people dying. How can we process that? We related to what she said about one man and one woman.”
“That’s when it struck me what I’ve been able to do,” she said. “I didn’t know how to write a book. One man you can understand.”
Sokolov’s life at Birkenau intersected with many tragedies, but one of the most affecting was that of a 16-year-old girl named Cilka. A beautiful child, she caught the eye of a camp commander who forced her into a sexual relationship, repeatedly raping her. When the camps were liberated, she was just 19 and tried for being a Nazi conspirator. She served 15 years hard labor in a Siberian prison camp before returning home to Bratislava.
Her story is Morris’s next work, tentatively titled Cilka’s Journey, and expected to be released in October.
Religious intolerance
When asked why she thought instances of anti-Semitism keep occurring, Morris thought for a few minutes and then said, “ignorance.”
“And ignorance is the reality of what happens when you allow hate. … we’re clearly not getting our education properly if we’re still thinking that because of race or religion you’re someone I fear or hate.”
The Bulletin’s interview with Morris took place only hours before the shooting attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Morris’s hometown. She emailed The Bulletin to add to her thoughts.
“I watched as one of the most evil events played out in a city I love, my spiritual home, the place my three children were born,” she said of the event that unfolded just hours before.
“I know your country has a very different response to mass gun shootings, sadly they happen all too often for you. For us in Australia and New Zealand, it is an act of evil we could never contemplate and could never be prepared for.
“You asked me this morning how I felt about the rise in anti-Semitism and hate. I didn’t have a response for you because it is something I’ve not been subjected to. My response now still remains the same but said with a heavy heart and the belief we cannot fight hate with hate. Yeah, I know, easy to say when you don’t personally know anyone killed or injured, but my country, my hometown, my friends there today lost their innocence and I am heart-broken.”