My visit to the set of the upcoming TV series of The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Julia Wagner reflects on her behind-the-scnes trip to the set of a television series based on the bestselling novel


Recreating the horror: filming on the set of The Tattooist of Auschwitz at the replica of the death camp in Slovakia

Last year, between Yom Hashoah and Pesach, I visited the set of the television series of The Tattooist of Auschwitz on a press tour. In the flat fields around Bratislava, the true story of Holocaust survivor Lali Sokolov was being recreated.

I have never felt compelled to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau but I have always held the camps in my imagination, conjured by images planted from testimonies, literature, photographs and film that haunt our collective memory. I was curious to see how these real concentration and extermination camps would be recreated and represented in the new Sky/Peacock Originals drama, adapted from the 2018 book by Heather Morris, which is due to come to our screens in May.

The time of year was conducive to contemplation, and thoughts of freedom and remembrance were already swirling in my mind. I was self-reflective about why I had a curiosity to go to “fake” camps that I did not feel towards the real sites, but I headed off open to the experience and keen to learn more about Slovakia.

The morning of the set visit, I rose early after a restless night. I was anxious about what lay ahead and was relieved to see a clear sky and calm weather forecast. After a delicious breakfast that included “vianocka” or “Slovak Christmas bread”, which looked and tasted a lot like challah, I strolled around the historic centre of Bratislava, still largely closed at that time of day. I’d spotted a memorial to a synagogue that I wanted to visit — I learned that the shul stood from 1893 until 1969, when it was knocked down to make space for the new motorway bridge (another synagogue nearby now houses the Jewish community museum). On its former location, I found some local Jewish history in Slovak and a Holocaust memorial statue, with the simple inscription “Pamätaj!” (Remember!), also written in Hebrew, ”Zachor”. This stark instruction became my guiding thought for the trip.

Lali’s story was truly extraordinary. Born in what is now Krompachy in Slovakia, he was deported to Auschwitz in 1942, age 25. After a period of labour and then contracting typhus, Lali was appointed as a tattooist of people’s designated numbers, partly because of his knowledge of several languages. This role enabled him to become one of the few Jewish Slovak survivors of the Holocaust, along with his future-wife, Gita. An estimated 100,000 others perished. Despite being separated at the end of the war, Lali and Gita reunited, married, lived and worked in Slovakia, before relocating to Australia.

The production team of The Tattooist of Auschwitz scouted various locations in other European countries before settling on Slovakia. As well as being Lali’s birthplace, there was a willing Slovak film commission and suitable landscape. The team even found a disused red brick sugar factory with the same kind of windows as Auschwitz, which were standard issue at the time. Crew and supporting actors were employed from the area and, when possible, local Romany community members play Romany characters and Polish people play Poles — the mix of languages and accents spoken on set reflected the cacophony that would have been heard in the camps.

The book of The Tattooist of Auschwitz is an individual’s account of survival against the odds, rather than a collective or national portrait. A number of critical reviewers of the book pointed out factual inaccuracies, possibly because of Lali’s traumatised memory. Nonetheless, the book struck a chord with readers, selling around 12 million copies globally to date. The team behind the series assured me that factual accuracy was paramount in the production, and that the nature of memory from survivors would be dealt with sensitively.

Consultant Naomi Gryn was on hand at every stage of scriptwriting and filming, advising on Jewish and historical details. Naomi — whose father Rabbi Hugo Gryn survived Auschwitz — passionately explained the importance of accuracy. For instance, she was able to research the correct Czech pronunciation for Hebrew for one character, and she found out in which tune a group of women would have sung Avinu Malkeinu. This was not simply an exercise in adapting a book to screen appropriately; it was an opportunity to give voice to a culture that barely survived the 20th century.

Sensitivity and historical accuracy do not always go hand in hand. An ethical difficulty arose when it came to the grim decision of what numbers should be used to tattoo people. In the series, you will see possible numbers (accurate to the place and period) but not actual numbers that were tattooed on real prisoners.

The first task as I arrived on the Auschwitz set was to be tested for Covid. Thankfully, the result was negative and I was allowed to enter. Bitter irony, I thought, considering that the spread of disease was so rife in the real camps, and the descriptions of typhus so vivid in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Again, as I did that same morning when I ate the vianočka, I had a jolt of self-consciousness, my Jewish sensibility ricocheting through time. I was remembering them, then and bouncing back to me, now. “Remember,” I said to myself, “it’s not real. I’m not really there. This isn’t really Auschwitz, it’s just a representation.” I became aware that my repeated self-checking was a defence mechanism to counter the ultimate aims of the production, which were to make the screen images seem real, to create an illusion that makes the viewer suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the screen world.

Filming was already in full swing when I was invited into a small tent to watch the scenes being shot just around the corner. On a monitor, I watched a firing squad shooting prisoners, while Lali (played by Jonah Hauer-King) looked on in agony. This was performed and filmed repeatedly until the desired footage was captured. I emerged into the daylight and stepped onto the scene that I’d just watched, where I was introduced to the charming cast and crew, including Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer. We were all crossing backwards and forwards, in and out of imaginary realms and our professional roles. While this may be daily life for those working on film sets, my head was already spinning. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the others. I was relieved to learn that the wellbeing of the cast and crew was supported by counsellors.

Production designer Stevie Herbert walked me through the sets, explaining that no decision was taken lightly in the reconstruction of the camps. The production was conducted with respect and sensitivity as they worked off real Auschwitz-Birkenau blueprints and maps, striving for representational accuracy to convey the magnitude of scale and horror. Almost apologetically, she showed me where sets had to be scaled down compared to the real buildings for practical reasons (such as to fit within the camera frame), or where green screen would be used to extend the site as the number of buildings increased over the war years. I got the impression that any deviation from historical accuracy was considered to risk disrespecting Lali and others who suffered in the real places.

I saw how Lali’s story was handled with care, in stark contrast to the brutality of what he lived through. I was taken to the building that was being used to represent the processing room, where belongings (props, I reminded myself) were seized and stored, heads were shaved, tattoos were inked. It was an impressive, poignant recreation.

Despite the glorious sunshine, the previous days had seen heavy rain. The Birkenau set had flooded and we were driven through soggy fields in 4x4s. Before exploring the constructed barracks, I was generously offered an array of Wellington boots. I thought of Gita and others who endured a tortuous death march in the final stages of the Holocaust, as I guiltily slipped on my small luxury.

The purpose of the camps was death. The intention of the series is the opposite: to remember, to honour, and to draw our attention to victims of the Holocaust. To bring to life on screen what was once condemned to death.

The series will reach new audiences unfamiliar with the book and will hopefully raise awareness of the Holocaust. Its success will depend not only on its historical accuracy, but also in the quality of its storytelling. Yet for me, one of the most affecting elements of the set visit was the reminder that for the vast majority of Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners, there was no narrative arc, no redemption, no love story. No lucky breaks. No new start in Australia or anywhere else, and no descendants to remember or share their stories. Through watching stories like Lali’s, we remember what we can, aware that there is so much that we cannot.

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