he image of the prisoners at Auschwitz seems to be represented by certain factors such as being undernourished, hairless, with a uniform in vertical stripes, and a tattoo, usually on the arm. Once brought to concentration camps, people lost their identities, becoming ink-numbered. Of the more than one million people who were imprisoned at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945, some also had certain skills or talents which the Nazis took advantage of. A category of such detainees consisted of those who knew how to tattoo, they were being kept especially for this purpose. Among them was Lale Sokolov, a Jew whose story became the subject of a book.
The Tattoo artist from Auschwitz
Lale Sokolov was born in Krompachy, a town in Slovakia. He liked foreign languages from an early age, which took him into the business world and which would later save his life. In the first months of World War II, when he was the manager of a store in Bratislava, he heard that all Jews in his hometown were forced to go to concentration camps. Lale offered himself to local authorities in exchange for his parents, saying it was more appropriate to walk when he was much younger. He thought he would save his family that way. The last day he was taken home was the last time he saw his relatives.
Transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the first round with Jewish prisoners, Sokolov was given the number 32407. After only a few weeks, he contracted typhus but survived. Immediately afterward, Lale was approached by a French prisoner known as Pepan, a tattoo artist, who asked him if he would like to work together. Four weeks later, Pepan disappeared, and Lale took over, being responsible for tattooing the identification numbers of the new prisoners. One of the reasons he was preferred for this job was that he knew many foreign languages: Slovak, German, Russian, French, Hungarian, and Polish.
The job had not been an option; he was forced to accept. He was, in a way, safe from death. We could say that he was doing really well compared to most prisoners. He ate in the administrative building, received extra food, slept alone in the room, and when he finished his job or was not a prisoner of the tattoo, he was allowed to have free time. However, no one was really exonerated in the eyes of the Nazis. Many times, Dr. Mengele called him when he performed his medical experiments on newcomers, telling him that the next one would be him.
It seems that the only places where prisoners were tattooed were at Auschwitz and in its branches in Birkenau and Monowitz. This identification procedure was carried out only between the autumn of 1941 and the spring of 1943. It seems that initially, the prisoners were “marked” with a metal stamp that had numbers made of dozens of small needles, about a centimeter long, that stung people’s skin. The ink then leaked into the wound just as it was bleeding. Not long after, the person in charge of the tattoo received a device similar to today’s ones, with a single needle, with the help of which the simple, current procedure of tattooing followed.
He tattooed his love on her heart
Lale Sokolov tattooed prisoners for two years. In July 1942, a group of women arrived to be identified. From here, Lale’s story changed as he met the love of his life. Her name was Gita Fuhrmannova or, as she was known at Auschwitz, detained under number 34902. With the help of the SS officer who supervised him, Baretski, he could send her letters, and on Sundays, the prisoners’ day off, they could meet. He tried to do everything to make his life easier: he sent him food when he could, and he changed the place where he worked to an easier one.
In 1945, shortly before the Russians arrived, the Nazis began relocating prisoners. Gita, the love of his life, was one of them. Eventually, the war ended, and some of the prisoners survived. Including Sokolov. He returned to his hometown of Slovakia, paying with the jewelry stolen from the Nazis. He reunited with his sister, Goldie, but his parents were nowhere to be found. There was only one thing left to do: find Gita.
So, Lale set off for Bratislava, the city through which many survivors passed to get home. He waited at the train station for weeks until an employee advised him to go to the Red Cross. The great meeting took place near the destination where he met Gita. A few months later, they got married and opened a textile factory.
The story did not end here, as the two spouses sent money abroad to help a group of Israelis. When the Soviet government found out, Lale was sentenced to prison, and his business was nationalized. So he and Gita fled the country, first to Vienna, then to Paris, and finally to Australia, to Melbourne, where they would spend the rest of their lives. There they opened a new textile factory. Gita died in 2003, and Lale died in 2006, at the age of 90, not before telling his story, testimonies found in the book “Tattooist of Auschwitz,” written by Heather Morris.