In a scene from the novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz, two Jewish prisoners sneak a few moments alone together behind an administration building at the eponymous Nazi camp complex. Lali, the protagonist, asks Gita, his love interest, for her last name. She refuses to answer, insisting that she is just a number. “You should know that,” she tells him. “You gave it to me.”

Like most prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lali and Gita have identification numbers that were forcibly tattooed on their arms. Gita’s tattoo happens to be Lali’s handiwork. He is the concentration camp’s tattooist, a role that affords him a greater chance of getting out alive. Gita, meanwhile, cannot imagine life after Auschwitz. “Outside doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only here,” she says. “I am prisoner 34902 in Birkenau, Poland.”

There’s just one problem with this scene: The real Gita, whose last name was Furman, was never prisoner 34902.

While Heather Morris’ 2018 novel is a work of fiction, it’s based on the memories of an actual Holocaust survivor, Lali Sokolov, who met Gita while they were both imprisoned at Auschwitz. But when the novel debuted, historians found a number of puzzling factual inconsistencies. Based on existing evidence, including a 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Gita’s number was 4562.

“Popular books only seemingly present the history of Auschwitz and the fate of its victims,” says Wanda Witek-Malicka, a researcher at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, per a translation by a colleague. “In reality, they are representations of the author’s imaginings about this history, often very distant from factual realism. We cannot understand the reality of concentration camps and genocide if, instead of reliable knowledge about them, we receive a collection of inauthentic imaginations.”

The layers of Lali’s story

This is what historians agree on: A young Jewish man from Slovakia was imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942. His name was Ludwig Eisenberg, and his identification number was 32407. Those core details have been verified against Auschwitz’s records.

The next layer of this story relies on personal accounts. According to Ludwig—who went by “Lali” and later changed his last name to “Sokolov”—he eventually became a tattooist, inking numbers onto other prisoners’ arms. One day, the prisoner sitting before him was 18-year-old Gita, also from Slovakia. In this moment of despair, they fell in love. After the war, they moved to Melbourne, Australia, 10,000 miles away from the camp where they met.

Some 75 years later, their story became the premise of Morris’ best-selling novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Her dramatized account bears all the hallmarks of a modern romance: Gazes linger. Knees go weak. Faces grow hot. And so on. When Lali finishes tattooing the number on Gita’s arm, he looks up at her. Her eyes “dance”; his heart is “pounding.”

The story of the Auschwitz tattooist who fell in love became a sensation. To date, Morris’ novel has sold millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages. It’s a New York Times best seller and an ever-popular book club pick. This week, a new TV adaptation of the novel arrives on Peacock.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

Filtered through layers of tellings and retellings, Lali’s story has become a game of telephone. What changed between Lali’s first steps through Auschwitz’s gates and Morris’ millionth book sale? How can readers know which details are an accurate reflection of history?

“As I have often said, I have not written the story of the Holocaust, but a Holocaust story: [Lali’s] story, as he remembered it in his late 80s,” says Morris.

Still, when the book debuted, many readers were concerned by its romanticized portrayal of life in a Nazi death camp. They also identified numerous factual errors, one of the most egregious being the number on Gita’s arm.

Where did the number 34902 come from? Gary Sokolov, the couple’s son, told the New York Times he has no idea. While his father would draw attention to his tattoo, using it as a narrative aid, his mother felt uneasy about hers. Over the years, that uneasiness only grew. She had the tattoo removed when she was in her 60s. Unlike her husband, Gita never wanted to tell this story.

Hearing Lali’s testimony

Morris met Lali in 2003, just months after Gita’s death. Until then, he had largely refrained from talking about their time at Auschwitz out of respect for his wife. Now that she was gone, Lali, who was approaching 90, decided he was ready. His son, Gary, started looking for someone he could talk to, someone who could record the story in some capacity. He found Morris, an amateur screenwriter, through mutual friends.

Morris is not Jewish. She grew up in a small town in New Zealand—where she doesn’t recall ever meeting a Jew—before moving to Australia at age 18.

When she first met Lali, he asked her what she knew about the Holocaust. “I had to hang my head in shame,” Morris told Tablet magazine in 2018. “Of course, I knew it existed, and I’d read Anne Frank’s diary, but that was the beginning and the end of it.” According to Morris, this is exactly what Lali wanted: a blank slate, a writer without any baggage or family history connected to the Holocaust.

An older Lali with Heather
An older Lali (played by Harvey Keitel) walks with writer Heather Morris (Melanie Lynskey) in a scene from "The Tattooist of Auschwitz." Martin Mlaka / Sky UK

They met two to three times a week for three years. She saw herself as a friend, not an interviewer, and as such didn’t always take notes. In the early sessions, Morris also decided against recording their conversations in an attempt to make Lali feel at ease.

“Note-taking—or recording while someone is talking to you—can become a third person in the room,” she says. “The teller of the story will want to look at what you are writing. They will become cautious about every word they say out of concern that they might get something wrong.”

Lali’s recollections came out in fragments, often with “limited coherency” and “no flow or connection” to each other, she wrote in a 2018 Literary Hub essay. “But it didn’t matter. Sitting with him, listening to him, was spellbinding.” Sometimes, she added, Lali would get confused or choose not to share certain details. Morris chalked this confusion up to grief.

She had initially intended to create a record for Gary, as his parents had never discussed Auschwitz with him. Later, she asked Lali if she could write his story as a screenplay. Morris spent more than a decade trying to sell the resulting fictionalization, but while she says it was optioned twice, the project never came to fruition. Eventually, after venting her frustrations, her brother and sister-in-law convinced her to rewrite the screenplay as a novel.

Around the time of the book’s publication, Morris was often asked about how much creative license she took. “Ninety-five percent of it is as it happened, researched and confirmed,” she told the Guardian. In the novel’s acknowledgments, she thanks two colleagues for “their brilliant investigative skills in researching the ‘facts’ to ensure history and memory waltzed perfectly in step.”

On several occasions, Morris mentioned stories that didn’t make it into the book because they couldn’t be verified. One of them involved a man who had been caught in an escape attempt; Lali said he altered the number tattooed on the prisoner’s arm and helped him escape again a few days later. “I couldn’t include it because I didn’t have proof; I only had Lali’s word,” Morris told Tablet.

Another such story is more troubling. The novel follows Lali’s transfer to Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria, where he posed as a non-Jew—and was nearly exposed when a fellow prisoner told the guards of his true identity. What the real Lali says happened next is not included in the novel. Writing in the Monthly, an Australian magazine, journalist Christine Kenneally pointed to a taped interview Lali gave in the 1990s.

In his “more spectacular” account, Lali asked two workers at a local steel mill to “take the man who reported him and send him through the mill’s enormous rollers,” wrote Kenneally. “When I asked Morris why she’d left out Sokolov’s murder story, she explained that there was no way of confirming it, and that she wouldn’t include anything in the book without corroboration.”

What did the book get wrong?

Every year, as many as two million visitors tour Auschwitz. They see the “​​Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”) gate, the barbed-wire fencing, the wooden barracks, the gas chamber. Sometimes, visitors come to the camp with pre-existing notions of what it should look like based on books they’ve read or movies they’ve seen.

“One of my colleagues told me about a request from a visitor asking for a tour ‘in the footsteps of The Tattooist of Auschwitz,’” says Witek-Malicka. “That visitor received the refusal with regret and disappointment. The truth, however, is that even if we wanted to create such a ‘tour route,’ due to the numerous errors in the book regarding the camp’s topography and the incorrect placement of many scenes, it would simply be impossible.”

Witek-Malicka knows those errors well. In 2018, she published a lengthy investigation into the text’s historical inconsistencies in Memoria, the Auschwitz museum’s magazine.

The center confirmed that one Ludwig Eisenberg (camp documentation records him as “Ludovit”) arrived at Auschwitz on April 23, 1942. He could not, however, have traveled the train route Morris described in the novel. (“Here, she probably used the modern online search engine of railway connections,” wrote Witek-Malicka.)

Railway tracks leading to Auschwitz
The railway tracks leading to Auschwitz, which is now a museum and memorial to the Holocaust's victims Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Gita’s story also contains several errors. While Lali had remembered her number as 34902, this was not the number she cited in her USC Shoah Foundation testimony. It also wasn’t associated with her name in Auschwitz’s records. Gita was thought to have arrived on April 13, 1942, when prisoners were not yet receiving numbers as high as 34902. The number appears to have been issued a year later, on February 11, 1943, to a woman who arrived in a transport from the Netherlands.

“We were really surprised to find out that the number given in the book is not correct,” Paweł Sawicki, editor in chief of Memoria, told the Guardian in 2018. “It is a very basic but a crucial detail in the story.”

Another storyline in the novel involves Lali acquiring penicillin for an ailing Gita, who has contracted typhus. But this could not have happened, as penicillin was not yet widely available. This is corrected in later printings of the book. “Even though [Lali] used the word ‘penicillin,’ recollections more than 50 years after an event can be difficult,” says Morris. “Replacing this term with the word ‘medicine’ was appropriate.”

Morris says the inaccuracies identified by the museum “were rectified immediately in reprints of the English language books and corrected before publication in the foreign language editions.” But the museum’s concerns weren’t always so clear-cut. In the book, for example, prisoners seem to have a surprising amount of freedom to roam about the camp. The world of Tattooist also imagines new horrors, like buses turned into gas chambers, as if the true horrors were not sufficient.

“The author is not a researcher, and her lack of substantive and technical competence to work on personal sources, as well as the lack of general knowledge on the realities of the camp, is visible in the book,” wrote Witek-Malicka in her report. She added, “Given the number of factual errors, this book cannot be recommended as a valuable title for persons who want to explore and understand the history of … Auschwitz.”

The gates of Auschwitz
The gates of Auschwitz, with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”) Keystone / Getty Images

Gary, the son of the titular tattooist, also found aspects of the novel troubling, such as the spelling of his father’s name. He told the New York Times that the book incorrectly used “Lale,” rather than “Lali.”

By the end of 2018, Gary had “backed away a bit” from the project, Morris told the Australian. “Gary’s wife found a piece of paper that Lale had written on, one sentence, and she reckons the way he spelt his name, it’s an ‘i’ on the end, and now she’s fixated on this. My response has been, this is an 80-plus-year-old, it’s shaky writing, and anyway, Lale read my screenplay, with the name L-A-L-E. That is what he told me his name was.”

Morris eventually stopped emphasizing the book’s historical accuracy in interviews. “It’s not a memoir,” she told the Australian. “It’s fiction, and if people want to quibble, fine.” Last year, she told the London Times that Lali had given her this story—and if she hadn’t written it, nobody would have.

Holocaust fiction’s fraught history

In the summer of 1989, nearly three decades before Tattooist appeared on shelves, the New York Times published a withering essay by Elie Wiesel, the famous writer, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor. “The Holocaust,” he wrote, “has become a fashionable subject.” As such, the entertainment industry has “set out to exploit it.”

Wiesel cited philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (“whereof one cannot speak, one must not speak”) and pointed to a spate of “cheap and simplistic melodramas” from the 1970s and 1980s that used the Holocaust as a convenient backdrop. He marveled that even though survivors were still alive, their stories were being turned “into a kind of no man’s land” in which “newcomers to this history appoint themselves experts.”

“The truth of Auschwitz,” he wrote, “remains hidden in its ashes. Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so.”

Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel's 1960 memoir, Night, is considered one of the foundational texts of Holocaust literature. Santi Visalli / Getty Images

Wiesel was 15 when he arrived at Auschwitz, where his mother and younger sister would perish. After the war, he refused to write about his experiences for years, fearing his words could not accurately describe the horrors he had seen. Finally, in 1960, he published the memoir Night, now considered one of Holocaust literature’s most lauded works. As a survivor, Wiesel felt a duty to bear witness. Still, he agonized over the project.

“Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else,” he wrote in the preface to a 2006 translation of the text. “I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was ‘it’? ‘It’ was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned.”

Night is part of a larger body of work written by firsthand witnesses, which includes texts such as Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s meditation on finding meaning in suffering; Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s account of his arrest and imprisonment; and The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank’s famous account of hiding out with her family in the Netherlands.

Eventually, a second generation of Holocaust literature appeared, as the children of survivors began writing about their experiences. Perhaps the best-known work in this category is Maus, the graphic novel that follows cartoonist Art Spiegelman as he interviews his father about his time in Auschwitz.

Then there were those “newcomers to this history”: fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust by those with little connection to or knowledge of it. In the case of Tattooist, it appears that Lali specifically requested such a person chronicle his experience. “Thousands of survivors have chosen to tell their stories in different ways, through different people,” says Morris.

Today, Holocaust fiction is well-worn territory. Interested readers can find titles such as The Librarian of Auschwitz, The Saboteur of Auschwitz, The Mistress of Auschwitz, The Brothers of Auschwitz, The Last Boy in Auschwitz, Last Stop Auschwitz, The Auschwitz Escape and Auschwitz Lullaby. Also available is a large selection of picture books for younger children: Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, Oskar and the Eight Blessings, The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank. Holocaust fiction has indeed become fashionable, written by both those with and without direct connections to the subject material.

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (2008) trailer

One of the most discussed titles in recent years is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a 2006 novel by Irish writer John Boyne, who isn’t Jewish. The children’s book follows 9-year-old Bruno, a German boy whose father has just been promoted to commandant at Auschwitz. One day, Bruno meets another boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of a wire fence. What could he be doing over there? Why is he wearing the titular striped pajamas? After Bruno climbs under the fence to see his new friend, both boys are killed in a gas chamber. Bruno’s father, the Nazi commandant, feels very guilty about his son’s death—and perhaps for his broader culpability for the atrocities at Auschwitz, too. The book sold more than 11 million copies.

According to a survey conducted by the Center for Holocaust Education in London, 35 percent of teachers in England said they used either the book or the 2008 movie adaptation in their lessons. Another study from the center found that the book actually introduces new misconceptions about the Holocaust.

“The study reported, for example, that the story regularly elicited profound and often somewhat misplaced sympathy for German and even Nazi families, whom, students argued, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas helped them to see as ‘victims,’ too,” writes the center. “Moreover, while most young people who took part in the study recognized the narrative as a work of fiction, and many were able to identify and critique its most glaringly implausible plot points or historical inaccuracies, they nonetheless overwhelmingly characterized it as ‘realistic’ and/or ‘truthful.’”

Witek-Malicka says that popular understandings of the Holocaust are weakening with time. Most of today’s teenagers, for instance, have grandparents who were born after World War II. “One could certainly engage in lengthy discussions about whether contemporary popular novels about Auschwitz influence the common (informal) understanding of Holocaust history or merely reflect it—likely partly both,” she says. “They certainly have a crucial impact on perpetuating and disseminating a simplified, very superficial image of the Holocaust and reinforcing erroneous stereotypes, but they do not significantly (or at all) contribute to a genuine, deep understanding of the mechanisms of the rise and strengthening of totalitarianism and the nature of the genocide of World War II.”

The Auschwitz museum also weighed in on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, writing on social media that the book “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust.” Boyne, undeterred by this criticism, published a sequel in 2022.

Similarly, Morris released a sequel to Tattooist, called Cilka’s Journey, in 2019. This book follows Cilka Klein, a minor character in Tattooist who is also based on a real person. In Morris’ version of the story, 16-year-old Cilka is repeatedly sexually assaulted by a high-ranking camp commander.

Heather Morris and Melanie Lynskey
Writer Heather Morris poses with actor Melanie Lynskey at a screening of The Tattooist Of Auschwitz in London Dave Benett / Getty Images for Sky

George Kovach, the real Cilka’s stepson, met with Morris when she asked him to write the book’s afterword. But after reading excerpts from the project, and reading Tattooist, “I decided not to be associated with this project in any way,” he told the Guardian in 2019.

The Auschwitz museum had criticized this storyline in its original report on Tattooist, explaining that “the disclosure of such a relationship would involve an accusation of race dishonor … and severe punishment for the SS man.” Due to the man’s high-ranking position, the possibility of an arrangement of this kind was “nonexistent.”

The new mini-series

The six-episode mini-series offers a new interpretation of Lali’s story. Directed by Tali Shalom Ezer, the show begins with an elderly Lali (played by Harvey Keitel) at his home in Melbourne. Morris (Melanie Lynskey) takes a seat in his living room and asks, “You’re looking for someone to write your life story?”

The pair’s conversations in the early 2000s anchor a series of flashbacks featuring a younger Lali (Jonah Hauer-King) and Gita (Anna Próchniak). From the beginning, it’s clear that these flashbacks are the elder Lali’s memories—which may or may not be entirely reliable.

In one such flashback, a young Lali, newly arrived at Auschwitz, is still uncertain about the camp’s purpose. One night, he wanders outside of his crowded barracks. He sees an SS soldier taunt three Jews before shooting them in quick succession—an early harbinger of the brutality to come.

The show cuts back to Melbourne. When Lali walks into the kitchen, an apparition of the SS soldier appears. “Hey, old man,” he says. “It was me that night? I’m not so sure you remember it right.”

“Memory isn’t linear. It doesn’t come out as one fully constructed piece,” says Claire Mundell, the series’ executive producer. “We literally frame it that way. So we dramatize the real Lali Sokolov and we dramatize the real Heather Morris in order [to] make it super clear to the audience that our story is subjective. You only see what Lali sees, and what you’re seeing is Lali’s memory of what he experienced—and he’s recalling this memory some 60 years after it occurred.”

Lali's home in Melbourne
An older Lali (played by Harvey Keitel) and Heather (Melanie Lynskey) meet at Lali's home in Melbourne in "The Tattooist of Auschwitz." Martin Mlaka / Sky UK

In another memory, Lali learns that his friend Aaron has been sent to the gas chambers. Back in Melbourne, when Morris asks why Aaron was chosen, Lali says he doesn’t remember.

Later, after Morris has gone home, Lali relives the memory alone. This time, when Lali finds Aaron missing, he’s told that his own number had been on a selection list. Because he hadn’t been there, Aaron was taken instead.

“We’re trying to demonstrate through drama the nature of shame and guilt and trauma—and what trauma does to memory over time,” says Mundell. In other words, even when memory’s accuracy degrades, its emotional resonance does not. The Nazi apparition in Lali’s living room is no less haunting for being poorly remembered.

The showrunners, who ensured that cast and crew had access to counselors during production, say the series’ tone is darker than the novel’s. “If you’re telling a love story set in a place such as Auschwitz,” says Mundell, “you have to show something of the darkness in order for the audience to fully understand the miracle of finding love there.”

Broadly speaking, Witek-Malicka says that compared with novels, film and television present unique challenges for telling Holocaust narratives.

“What can largely be left to the viewer’s imagination in a book is shown directly in a film image,” she says. “Showing the visual aspects of Auschwitz seems like an ostensibly easy task. After all, the authentic place is preserved, and we have not only photos of prisoners but also original striped uniforms” and other elements of camp life. But “this usually turns out to be a trap, and film creators often stumble over details that seem insignificant but are crucial from a historical perspective,” Witek-Malicka adds.

Throughout production, showrunners have been able to use the Auschwitz museum’s 2018 report as a resource. Do they see the series as a way to finally correct some of those concerns?

“Yes is the short answer, I suppose,” says Mundell, caveating that the project is a drama, not a documentary or docudrama. Lali’s recollections drive the story, which is further shaped by budgetary constraints, scheduling conflicts and editorial decisions. Still, Mundell felt it was important to show the Auschwitz museum that showrunners were taking its critiques seriously. “We wanted to lean into the comments that they had made,” she says. “There’s a number of things that were of concern to them that we’ve been able to address in the drama.”

Morris, on the other hand, says, “There is nothing to fix. The handful of historical errors in [Lali’s] memories were acknowledged and rectified five years ago, as soon as they were identified.”

Gita at Auschwitz
Gita (Anna Próchniak) in a crowd of prisoners at Auschwitz in "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" Martin Mlaka / Sky UK

In addition to prioritizing representation—through, for instance, casting Jewish actors in Jewish roles—the showrunners hired Naomi Gryn, the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, to work as a historical consultant. She served as the project’s conduit to museums, libraries and other resources around the world. While Morris didn’t visit Auschwitz until after her book’s publication (or access its records), the showrunners paid their respects there. They say they’ve been in touch with the Auschwitz museum to ask specific questions.

They also spent several days with Gary, who appears to be on board with the project. He saw the series at a private screening in February. In the closing credits (as well as all promotional materials), his father’s name is spelled with the letter “i.”

His parents’ fateful meeting is shown at the end of episode one. Lali is sitting before a line of prisoners, all waiting to be tattooed, when Gita appears at his table. She tells him his blue eyes look like the sky. He steadies her trembling hand and gets to work. The number on her arm is 4562.

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