No one amongst his acquaintances in Melbourne would have expected what a tragic and touching story laid behind that quiet, sometimes almost anonymous, appearance of Lale Sokolov.

Lale Sokolov

For over 50 years Sokolov kept hidden inside a heavy secret to hold, yet too hard to share with strangers and his very son. Only at the death of his beloved wife in 2003 the man decided to talk about the details of those tragic years spent in Auschwitz, interned for his Jewish origin and where, despite the horror, the death and the loss if identity, he met the woman of his life: Gisela Fuhrmannova, known as Gita.

Entrance to the camp of Auschwitz 1

Immagine di pubblico dominio

Before becoming Number 32407 in the hell that Auschwitz was, Ludwig “Lale” Eisenberg, was born in 1916 in a small city in Slovakia from Jewish parents. At the beginning of the 1940, when the Nazis demanded that alt least one member of each Jewish family was going to “work” in their camps, Lale offered himself, believing that the rest of the family would have been spared.

He was the only one amongst all his brothers to not be married

I was 26 when I have been taken from my parents house and sent as an animal to an unknown destination

That unknown destination was Auschwitz, the biggest Nazi killing field made out of several lagers, one of which being Birkenau. In this camp thousands of human beings lost their life but not just that: with it, they lost their identity, victims of other humans who had instead lost their humanity.

The ruins of the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Above: picture via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

The prisoners were identified by their tattooed number on their left arm; this practice was adopted only in Auschwitz, where the number of victims was so high that it wouldn’t have been possible to identify them after their death.

When the trains arrived, the prisoners unable to work were immediately sent to the gas chamber, with neither registration nor tattoo.

Document where Ludwig Eisenberg is signed as prisoner N° 32407

At his arrival Lale was sent to work on the construction of new dormitories but shortly after he contracted typhus fever. He was seen as dead and he would have been thrown into a mass grave along with other corpses if it wasn’t for doctor Pepan, French prisoner who was in charge to tattoo the new arrivals, the same person who had tattooed his own arm with the number 32407.

Pepan saved the young Lale but he didn’t manage to save himself as one day he just disappeared and no one ever knew what happened to him. In the meantime Eisenberg had learn the technique of tattooing and it was asked him to substitute Pepan even because he could speak French, Russian and German. Lale was executing his task by never looking into the victims eyes.

He had soon learnt that, in order to survive he had to keep his head down, his mouth shut and do not cause troubles

His role granted him some privileges: working for the political wing of the SS would mean bigger portions of food (that he always shared with other prisoners), a private room where to sleep, having spare time when he was not working. He was protected, besides kept under watch by a Nazi officer, and despite being in a better position than his fellows, the fear of dying never abandoned him. He was especially terrified by the Angel of death  Josef Mengele, who was used to screaming at him:

One day, tattooist, one day I’ll catch you

In July 1942, when the man was still an assistant of doctor Pepan, a girl whose tattoo was fading away arrived in front of him. Lale looked up towards her eyes and immediately fall in love. When he tattooed the number 34902 on Gita’s arm he had the feeling as if he was engraving it onto his own heart as well. He discovered that the girl was interned in the Birkenau camp, and, with the complicity of  some SS guards an exchange of letters begun as well as some undercover meeting.

The trains in the Birkenau camp

Above: picture by Bundesarchiv B 285 Bild-04413 / Stanislaw Mucha /  via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1945, the Nazis started to send the prisoners of Auschwitz in other camps and in that occasion Lale and Gita lost each other. He was sent to Mauthausen, and did not know where she sent. Once the war was over, Eisenberg came back home just to realise that only one sister was left. No information about the other relatives was given to him and he never discovered that his parents had just died next to him in Auschwitz, where they survived not even for a day, sent straight away to the gas chambers.

To find Gita, Lale went to Bratislava, where many camp survivors where converging while heading to Slovakia. For two weeks he tried to spot Gita between the many devastated passengers, armed only with that hope he didn’t want to die. Someone suggested him to check with the Red Cross, but along the way, a young woman with a familiar face crossed his wagon. She had those very eyes that had brightened the hell of Auschwitz.

It was Gita, the woman with whom I had dreamed a future, in a place where dreams had been deleted and the word “future” emptied out of all its meaning

Lale and Gita in 1945

The two married in October 1945 but their complications did not end there. The couple used the name Sokolov, believing to have a better life in Czechoslovakia, by that point part of the Soviet Union. Despite the trick though, Lale got imprisoned for having sent money to support an Israeli foundation. When their fabric shop was taken from them, LAle and Gita escaped the country and went to Australia, Melbourne.

There their new life started from scratch. For years they thought to share that tragic memory only between themselves, united and in love but doomed to not conceive due to the existance of privation, starvation and torture endured by Gita in the German camp. In 1961 though, as a miracle, Gary arrived: their only child testimony of that absolute love that linked his parents.

Lale e Gita, con il figlio Gary

But none of them ever forgot those horrors they had seen and felt in their own skin right when their love had started. Lale never came back to Europe and Gita, just a couple of times. He never revealed to anyone to have been a tattooist in Auschwitz, carrying along that burden never solved, that feeling of having been a collaborator of the Nazis. All the truth about their lives and their love story was revealed by Lale after his wife’s death.

Between 2003 and 2006, year in which Lala died, the author Heather Morris listened to Ludwig Eisenberg’s story in order to create a script for a film. What came up instead is a book, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz”, published in 2018.

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