With renewed interest in late 2018 in several countries where Heather Morris’ now-controversial Holocaust sex-and -romance novel titled “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” has become an Oprah-style New Age bestseller with over 650,000 copies in print worldwide, there has also been some renewed interest among scholars and the general public, Jewish people in particular, over what the tattoo system in Auschwitz and other camps was all about.
At first, as the so-called ”Final Solution” took shape and gained momentum, concentration camp numbers were sewn on the clothes of Jewish inmates. With the increased death rate however, it became difficult to identify corpses, since clothes were usually removed from the dead bodies. As a result, the Nazi medical doctors began to write the numbers on the corpses’ chests with what they hoped would be indelible ink. However, difficulties increased in 1941 when Soviet prisoners of war came in to the Nazi camps in droves, and the first few thousand skin tattoos were applied to them. The tattoo was applied with a single needle machine to the upper left part of the person’s breast, male or female. In March 1942, the same method was used in Birkenau, according to Holocaust scholars.
As you can see, the common belief that every Nazi concentration camp had someone, a tattooist — and more than one, a team of tattooists — to ink tattoos on inmates is not actually true. But try telling that to Hollywood or romance novel writers. The misconception is because many times Auschwitz inmates were sent to other camps and that is where they were liberated from. They would show a number to medical personnel and Red Cross staff, but the number came from their time at Auschwitz.
The inked tattoo at Auschwitz, the kind that Lali Sokolov in Morris’ memoir/novel was doing, was the prisoner’s ”camp number,” sometimes with a special symbol added: some Jews had a triangle, and Romani prisoners had the letter “Z” (from German ”Zigeuner” for “Gypsy”). In May 1944, Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz received the letters “A” or “B” to indicate particular series of numbers. For unknown reasons, this number series for women never began again with the “B” series after they had reached the number limit of 20,000 for the “A” series, according to scholars.
Lali Sokolov’s story has some holes in it, as does Morris’ romantic telling of it. She says that Lali, when he was 25, first met Gita, then 18 when she was admitted to the camp as a prisoner and he was one of ”the tattooists of Auschwitz.” The novel says he tattooed her with an original number on her arm, which the New York Times has discovered was the wrong number that Morris gives her in the book. She even has said that Lali said to her in old age when she met him in Australia before he died that — cue the Hollywood music — “I tattooed her arm that day, and she tattooed my heart forever.”
That’s how the book became a bestseller, and there are plans now under way to turn the novel into a Hollywood movie. They are already comparing it to Steven Speilberg’s “Schindler’s List” in terms of ticket sales and Holocaust heft. But not everyone is a fan of Morris’ novel, and even the Auschwitz Museum in Poland has issued a public recommendation that the novel, while moving and touching in a sappy kind of way — the way Oprah would love in her New Age way — not be used to teach courses in Holocaust Studies and Europan history classes.
Even Morris herself trips up. In speaking with a reporter recently, she said that despite what she wrote in the novel, Lali did not administer an origina; inked tattoo on her arm. Her first tattoo, put on her arm by another tattooist at another concentration camp before was transferred to Auscwitz, needed to be re-inked and darkened on her skin — a do-over.
“Lali was called to re-tattoo some Jewish girls with fading numbers,” Morris told the reporter. “He thought that one, Gita Fuhrmannova, was about to speak to him. But she didn’t. She remained silent and looked down. Then he squeezed her arm hard as he prepared the inking process and she looked at him. Lali told me when I interviewed him just before he died in Australia: ‘I knew in that second that I would never love another woman.’ ”
Believe that and there’s a bridge for sale in Brooklyn, as the old saying goes. But hey, that’s how they sell bestsellers these days, truth be damned.