In December 2003, over a coffee with a friend, I learned about a man, living in Melbourne, whose wife had recently died, and who just might have a story worth telling. Having written several screenplays based on real events and people, I jumped at the opportunity to meet Lale Sokolov.
It was a hot summer day in Melbourne when he opened his door to me, a dog standing either side of him. With the word ‘come’ the three of them turned and walked into a nearby dining room. I joined them and for the first time looked at the grief-stricken elderly gentleman who sat beside me, his head hung low. He seemed so fragile, so vulnerable. Where to start?
I began by telling him a little about myself, my family, that I was a New Zealander and that I worked in the Social Work Department of a large Melbourne hospital. He began with the words “I was the Tätowierer [tattooist] in Auschwitz, did you know that?” For the next two hours he talked. I listened.
Early on in our conversation he jumped up and retrieved a photo from a nearby side-board. Showing it to me his eyes moistened, his lips trembled and his hands shook. “She was so beautiful, I looked into her eyes as I held her arm and tattooed numbers on her arm, did you know I did that?” He clutched the photo to his chest for several minutes before placing it on the table between us. Gita had joined the conversation.
That day I heard bits of incomplete stories, vignettes of Lale’s two and a half years as the Tätowierer in Auschwitz / Birkenau. I heard enough to realise I was sitting with living history, with a man who definitely had a story worth telling, and I wanted to hear it. It was the greatest love story imaginable, a couple who met in Auschwitz and survived against all odds.
So began our friendship of three years. Lale was delighted when I told him I planned to write his story as a screenplay, hoping I would one day get it made into a film. This required our going to the movies on many occasions for him to “find the person who should play me”. Brad Pitt one day, Ryan Gosling the next. He only ever wanted Natalie Portman to play Gita. As I became friends with his son Gary, Lale became one of my family. My husband and young adult children fell under his spell as I had.
With a reasonable draft of the screenplay finished, a local film production company optioned the film rights from me. They met Lale, spent time with him and devoted a lot of time to developing the script with me. After four years they were unable to advance to a production stage and I took the option back. Entering the script into several screenwriting competitions in the US, it placed highly and won one competition. I was being encouraged to do whatever it took to find a way to have the story get told.
I decided to adapt the script into a novel. My intention was to do this and self publish through e-books. One of my sons, a producer of short films had crowd-funded through Amazon’s Kickstarter. He suggested I do this, too partly to raise money, but also because it had been an outstanding way to tell people around the world about his project. And so I did. My husband and I put together a video clip and posted it on Kickstarter. Not only was this campaign successful financially, but more importantly it did exactly what my son said it might. It brought the story to the attention of many people. One worked for a local Melbourne publishing house and contacted me asking for a meeting. That meeting took place and The Tattooist of Auschwitz is now sold into over 20 countries.
When Lale died in October 2006, three days after his 90th birthday, he had read two drafts of my screenplay and kept telling me not to change a word. He loved it. The option with the production company was in play and he was excited to meet film producers and directors. Of course they too had fallen under his spell.
The change in the man I had met three years earlier was phenomenal. The stabbing pain of grief had dulled to a constant, nagging ache, but he was now laughing, playing jokes on me and others, even skipping and dancing around his living room.
Lale repeatedly told everyone he met how he wanted his story to be told and spread far and wide, so that a Holocaust would never happen again. Through his, and other testimonies, we would learn and live by the words he said to himself everyday — if you woke up in the morning, it is a good day. He would say to me: as long as you try to live the best life you can, you are a winner.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is published by Zaffre