By Anna Lehnecke
When Heather Morris started to interview the 86 year-old Lale Sokolov she could never have imagined what kind of life story she was going to unveil. This beautiful, touching and heartbreaking novel, which was published in 2018, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor and an unbelievable love affair in the middle of the biggest crime against the human race in history.
Today’s world is overrun by hatred, terrorism and countless dreadful wars which tear apart not only families but also entire cultures. And I wonder why we never learn from what has already happened. These tragedies and gratuitous sacrifices could be avoided if only the right education were to take place in every single life on this planet, since education is the door to appreciation and acceptance. And this wonderfully written novel could change the view of many people who say that history is not important and has no influence.
But now let me get to the eye-opening story of Lale the survivor.
In April 1942, the Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov was transported in an overcrowded train wagon to the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon his arrival he was tattooed with the number 32407. From that moment on he was not Lale Sokolov anymore. He was just another number amongst thousands of others. And what is left of you when they take your name, belongings and identity? But Lale was one of the few who never lost his hope; – he knew that he was going to survive these horrors, no matter what.
In the first weeks he was tasked with constructing new housing blocks for the new arrivals as the camp was constantly expanding. Lale knew that he had to keep a low profile to escape the unpredictable tempers of the SS guards, who would regularly shoot innocent people. Furthermore, the hard work, not enough food and the nonexistent hygiene in the camp led to many deaths and illnesses. Lale himself contracted typhoid and would have died if had not been for a French academic named Pepan, who cared for him and eventually set him to work as his assistant tattooist. When Pepan mysteriously disappeared one day, Lale became the chief tattooist of the concentration camp, going on to mark thousands of people with their identification numbers. As a reader you can literally feel Lale’s detest doing what the officers told him to do. But he did it to survive. He had no choice other than to accept the job, because it meant that he would wake up again the next morning. He would continue to live.
In July 1942 a train filled with women arrived in Auschwitz and Lale comforted a young woman whilst tattooing the number 34902 on her arm. When he looked in her eyes his whole world immediately turned upside down and he found his reason for surviving. Lale found out that her name was Gita and he did everything he could to make her life easier in this cruel place. Because of his position he got extra food rations, which he secretly gave to those who urgently needed them. In doing so he prevented the death of many – but he could not save them all. Over the two and a half years, Lale witnessed acts of horrific slaughter and murder, including the dark deeds of Josef Mengele, and the gas chambers.
Lale Sokolov never talked about his doings in Auschwitz-Birkenau because he was too afraid of being convicted as a Nazi collaborator. It was only after his beloved wife Gita died in 2003 that Lale decided to take the burden from his shoulders and reveal not only the story of his survival, but also of deep love. And it’s lucky for us that he did tell his life-changing story, because now our generation can learn from his experiences. We can grow with his narratives and make sure that what Sokolov experienced will not be repeated another time.
This vivid recreation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences is a reminder of supreme importance, which also demonstrates what people are capable of. It captures the cruelty and inhumanity which took place not that long ago where over six million people were murdered. We should never forget that time, nor the deaths of all those innocent people. And we should start to accept people as they are, instead of spreading hate and cruelty. But Sokolov’s story also shows that people are always able to love and that good-heartedness can be found everywhere. No matter where and how, love is all around you and it can be the reason to live on.
Never forget. Never again.