Heather Morris will never forget the home town of the Slovakian Auschwitz survivor whose story she told
In January 2018, my first novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, was released. A few months later I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time. I had not wanted to go there until after the book had been published, because I needed to describe that place as Lale [Sokolov, the real-life subject of the book] had told me. I needed his impressions, not mine.
I live in Australia, and in 2003 a friend introduced me to a man whose wife had recently died. He wanted to tell a story. It was Lale. A week later, a meeting and friendship that would last the remaining three years of Lale’s life began. For months, I sat with him two or three times a week, listening to vignettes with no coherency. He was a Slovakian and a survivor of Auschwitz. He came to trust me, and our friendship became more about being together. I was with him two hours before he died and, as I kissed him goodbye, I whispered: “I will never, ever stop trying to tell your story.”
Before my first book tour of Europe, I had been contacted by a man living in Sydney who came from Krompachy, the Slovakian town where Lale was born and had lived. He had read The Tattooist of Auschwitz and contacted his aunt back in Krompachy, who was the town historian, and hoped I could provide a missing piece of the historical puzzle of their town – what had happened to all the Jews who left in the 1940s, none of whom returned.
I was invited to Krompachy. I mentioned to this man that I was going to be at Auschwitz in a few weeks’ time, but I could not squeeze a visit to Krompachy into my schedule. So imagine my surprise when, as the bus arrived outside Auschwitz, I saw 25 people, aged from 18 to 65, standing at the side of the road. They wore signs saying “Krompachy” and held a banner with the words “Krompachy, Slovakia, Ludwig Eisenberg, 32407” [Eisenberg was Lale’s original surname; 32407 was his prisoner number in Auschwitz]. I was on the International March of the Living tour with politicians, so security was tight, but I insisted I be let off the bus to meet the Krompachians.
Through broken English, they told me they could not allow me to come so close to Krompachy – a four-hour drive from Auschwitz – and not meet the person who had written about one of their own. They hoped I could tell them more about Lale and his family than was in the book. They also wanted to tell me how ashamed and angry the town was that no one tried to stop the transportation of nearly every Jewish person there.
Anna, the aunt of the man from Sydney, had with her several photos: Lale as a schoolboy, his school, the synagogue that once stood in the centre of town, shops that were once owned by Jews. Their need was more to hear from me about Lale and what happened to him, his family or any other Jewish families from Krompachy. The language barrier was overcome with hugs and tears. What I did understand was the invitation to visit them in Krompachy.
I arrived three months later. Lale had spoken so lovingly of that place – he’d wanted to return but felt scared about going back to Slovakia, even though communist rule was over. So I had promised him that I’d go back for him and see where he lived and to the little river where he would skip stones.
It was a holiday that changed my life. I was met by the mayor and councillors. What I had thought would be a four-day break exploring Lale’s hometown on my own was filled with a mayoral reception, a book launch, a walk around town with local kids, and dinners accompanied by slivovitz, the local plum brandy.
I was taken to the ruins of a small house where Lale and his family had lived. Part of the roof had fallen in and I was told it would be too dangerous to go inside. No one was sure when it had last been lived in, or by whom. It was old town records that had identified it as having been the Sokolov home in 1942.
There was a patch of grass where the synagogue once stood, which the townsfolk had never felt right about building on since. Together we decided to raise money for a memorial to the Jews who left Krompachy and never returned. There’s now a Holocaust memorial, which, unbeknown to me, was inscribed with my name. The official unveiling was scheduled for March, but I couldn’t go because of the pandemic, so it will happen when I can travel.
I am forever changed by having met people with whom I do not share a language or religion, but who welcomed me into their world. They allowed me to bring back to their town a past that had been forgotten, and now will be remembered forever.
As told to Vicki Power
Heather Morris’s Stories of Hope is published by Manilla Press. Hardback, ebook and audiobook, £14.99.
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office currently advises against all non-essential travel to Slovakia.