Danny Bloom
I seek the truth wherever it lies.

How screenwriter ‘manipulated’ a Holocaust survivor to go along with her ‘story’

Heather Morris, a native of small rural town in New Zealand where she never knew or met any Jewish people and doesn’t think any Jews actually lived there at all, according to her own recollections, is now a resident of Australia and the author of the now-controversial and semi-debunked sexed-up Holocaust romance “novel/memoir” of the chick-lit kind titled “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” For several years, while working as a social worker in a large public hospital in Melbourne, she studied about and wrote screenplays.

In 2003, by a stroke of luck, Heather was introduced to an elderly Holocaust survivor, Lali Sokolov, whose 45-year-old son Gary told her “might just have a story worth telling.” As her friendship with the Sokolov family grew, Heather began a long process of grooming Lali to “remember” things that could never have really happened when he was an inmate in the infamous Nazi concentration camp.

To see a good example of how Heather groomed Lali and even put words in his mouth about things that never really happened, see this staged spoken video interview that Heather produced in 2004 and put on YouTube — yes, she was already plotting out the plot way back then. Lali can be seen reading the script she gave him for this staged interview and falling under her spell. In this case, there was no Svengali in Lali’s life, but there was a very adroit Heathergali, egging the elderly man on. Watch the video a few times; it’s only 60 seconds long, but it tells a lot about how she controlled and manipulated him.

By sweet-talking Lali into believing his so-called ”life story” could make a terrific Hollywood movie as good as if not better than Steven Spielberg’s Hololcaust-themed “Schindler’s List,” and that she as a trained screenwriter that would make both of them famous would pen the screenplay and then sell it to the highest bidder in London or Los Angeles. She got Lali to trust her, and slowly, over a period of three years of friendly, animated weekly chats over coffee at his home in Melbourne, Heather lured Lali into “remembering” the innermost details of his life during the Holocaust and relating them to her, episode by episode. Heather originally wrote Lali’s story as a screenplay before reshaping it an impossibly romantic Oprah-style ”New Age” kind of novel.  “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” is now a hotly-contested bestseller in several countries and here’s why.

While the book says on its front cover that is “a powerful tale of the Holocaust based on a true story” — a clever and savvy way of marketing the book to a new generation of gullible, naive readers — in fact the book is not based on a true story at all. Heather, in a well-intentioned manner, psychologically manipulated and gently coerced Lali to go along with the screenplay story arc that she was planning to create. She even got him to start daydreaming out loud about who would play him and his wife Gita in movie.

Heather herself more or less admits all this in several interviews she has given.

”As our relationship changed from ghost writer and subject to friends, Lali and I started going out to movies in Melbourne from time to time. After all, Lali had to find the perfect actor to play himself. He settled on Ryan Gosling and he had already decided that only the Jewish actress Natalie Portman could play his late wife Gita,” Heather shared with a reporter.

See? Heather was putting stars in Lali’s eyes, and coaxing him into quietly going along with the Holocaust romance she was concocting in a ”Schindler’s List” kind of way. Call her novel “Heather’s List (About How To Invent a Dark New-Age Holocaust fairytale fantasy).”

And she succeeded. Over a million copies of the book sold worldwide. But not everyone agrees with what the book has achieved: The Auschwitz Museum in Poland has lately had a lot of things to say about the novel, and Alison Flood at The Guardian newspaper in London dished the dirt the other day here.

“I visited Lali two to three times a week for six months,” she recalls in a promotional statement. “I deliberately chose not to take any recording device with me for the first several months as I felt it was important for Lali to take his time, and for us to get to know each other. I was getting his ‘stories’ piecemeal, often told at bullet pace with limited coherency and with no flow or connection to the many, many tales he told. Over time, I began to make sense of the various pieces. The vignettes of Lali and Gita’s life in Auschwitz were combining in my mind into the most amazing love story ever told, something Oprah Winfrey would find fascinating as well. But sometimes the 87-year-old Lali seemed confused or refused to share details that seemed important to me.”

When Lali’s 89th birthday rolled around, some 10 months after they had first met, Heather had a first draft of her screenplay ready to show to him.

His reaction?

“He delighted in seeing his and Gita’s name on page after page,” she recalls. “I explained to him why some parts of it had to be fictionalized and that as a screenwriter writing a movie with three acts, I needed to fictionalize his story so I could weave together the romantic love story I had in mind and the better known facts of what life was really like in Auschwitz.”

”I had thought that my purpose in writing things down for Lali was to help him be a witness to history. But over the months, I came to see that by unburdening himself of the trauma and tragic events of his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lali could begin to heal, emotionally and physically,” Heather added.

”I hope that when readers read  ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz,’ they will hear only Lali’s voice, and that as I the writer will remain silent in the story that has nonetheless become entwined with my own story of learning and recording this tale,” she said.

But in fact, many readers hear Heather’s own voice on almost every page of the book, and her alleged wish to remain in the background has not been granted.

What went wrong? Scholars will be studying this book for years to come, but not for the reasons Mrs Morris was hoping for.

About the Author
Danny Bloom is editor of The Cli-Fi Report at www.cli-fi.net. Danny graduated from Tufts University in Boston in 1971 with a major in Yiddish Literature. A newspaper editor and reporter since his days in Alaska, Japan and Taiwan, he has lived and worked in 14 countries and speaks French, Japanese and Chinese. He hopes to live until 2032, when his tombstone will read "I came, I saw, I ate cho-dofu."
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