Bestselling ‘Tattooist of Auschwitz’ love story blurs facts, experts allege

Magazine published by memorial center at site of Nazi death camp points to several inaccuracies in novel; author defends book as recollection, not history

Holocaust survivor Bracha Ghilai, 75, shows her tattooed arm at her house in Holon near Tel Aviv, January 23, 2005. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Holocaust survivor Bracha Ghilai, 75, shows her tattooed arm at her house in Holon near Tel Aviv, January 23, 2005. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The author of a bestselling book about an unlikely love story in the Auschwitz death camp has come under fire for what a historian at the memorial museum for the former Nazi site says are inaccuracies in the story.

Heather Morris, author of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” has defended the book by saying it is not meant to be an exhaustive history but rather the recollections of one man who survived the camp.

The book, published earlier this year, tells the story of Lali Sakolov, who would tattoo new arrivals at the Nazi camp with numbers on their wrist, and his eventual wife Gita Furman, who he met while retracing her numbers. The two eventually re-united after the camp was liberated, married and made their way to Australia.

It has risen in the best-seller lists in the US, UK and Australia and has been optioned to be made into a television series.

In an article fact checking the story, though, Wanda Witeck-Malicka of Poland’s Auschwitz Memorial Research Center, which administers the site of the former death camp, wrote that the book “contains numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts; as well as overinterpretations, misinterpretations and understatements on which the overall inauthentic picture of the camp reality is built.”

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz”

Among the issues Witeck-Malicka raises about the historical accuracy of the book are routes which the train carrying Sokolov to Auschwitz took, the fact that the number that Gita had tattooed on her arm received does not correspond to when she says she arrived at the camp, the use of a bus as a gas chamber, and Sokolov and other prisoners being told to return to Birkenau without an escort after being taken out of the camp for work duty.

She also casts doubt over the possibility of a long-term sexual relationship between an SS commander at the camp and a Jewish prisoner.

Paweł Sawicki, editor of the center’s Memoria magazine, which published the critique, said they wanted to check into the story after a number of visitors asked about it.

“The further we got into the details, the more surprised we were to discover how [many] historical mistakes – small and big – about the reality of Auschwitz were there,” he told The Guardian.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau in May of 1944, Hungarian Jews arrived in cattle cars and prepared for the SS-conducted ‘selection’ (Auschwitz Album)

Questions have also been raised about a passage in which Sokolov takes Penicillin to Furman, which would not have been available at the time. The Sokolovs’ son Gary told the New York Times it bothered him that Morris spelled his father’s name Lale and not Lali, as he went by, though he praised the book for bringing the story to life.

“The fact that my dad, so many decades later, can have such a positive impact on humanity is just phenomenal,” he said.

The book is officially cataloged as fiction, though it has been marketed as a true story and Morris has said it is based on interviews with Sokolov, who died at age 90 in 2006, toward the end of his life. She met Sokolov after Gita died in 2003.

Heather Morris (Courtesy)

In an email to the New York Times, which wrote last month about the discrepancy of the tattooed number assigned to Furman, Morris wrote that the book “does not claim to be an academic historical piece of nonfiction.”

“It is Lali’s story. I make mention of history and memory waltzing together and straining to part, it must be accepted after 60 years this can happen but I am confident of Lali’s telling of his story, only he could tell it and others may have a different understanding of that time but that is their understanding, I have written Lali’s,” she wrote.

A spokesperson for Morris’s publisher told the Guardian that the novel is “based on the personal recollections and experiences of one man. It is not, and has never claimed to be, an official history. If it inspires people to engage with the terrible events of the Holocaust more deeply, then it will have achieved everything that Lale himself wished for.”

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