Ludwig “Lale” Eisenberg became tattooist at one of the most horrific sites ever conjured up by the human mind. There, in Auschwitz, he met the love of his life, and their incredible story will melt your heart.
That stamp. That dreadful mark. If it were not enough to have the terrors of war forever burned into the memories of all victims, they had to carry with them a permanent reminder—a number which served as their name. Their identity. The seal of their fate.
The series of numbers tattooed on the prisoner’s arms have become one of the landmark signs of the Holocaust. And behind them—hidden among those menial labors we seldom think of—lies a simple, unassuming man. The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
A train-ride into the unknown
One sad day in April 1942, a young Jewish man named Ludwig “Lale” Eisenberg was put on a train along with several other prisoners. The Nazis had come to Lale’s hometown in Poland and, when they threatened to take his family away, he volunteered to take their place. He offered his strength and youth, hoping that the rest of his family wouldn’t be split up. Since his siblings were married, and he wasn’t, he thought it best if it was him. Unaware of their destination, or what was expecting him there, Lale could only hope for the best at a time when humankind was keen on showing its worst.
The train soon arrived at a Nazi complex in Poland. They called it Auschwitz. As soon as he got there, he was put through a dreadful process of dehumanization whereby Lale lost his human identity to become a number. They took his clothes. They took his hair. They took his name. 32407. That would be his designation from then on. Prisoner 32407.
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Initially, like so many of the new arrivals, Prisoner 32407 was put to work in the construction of the camp’s new housing blocks. He would spend countless hours working on rooftops, learning about the horrible place where he ended up. Lale knew nothing about what happened inside the infamous concentration camps. No one knew. And he certainly didn’t expect what he found.
Lale had to keep a low profile. Accept the humiliation. Embrace the mistreatment. After all, if anyone hoped to survive the wrath and hate of the Nazis, they had to keep their face down and obey their orders. There was no other way in that situation.
The art of the tattoo
Shortly after Lale arrived at Auschwitz, he contracted typhoid fever. During his recuperation, he was taken care by an unexpected ally: the very man who had stamped the number on his forearm upon arrival. That man’s name was Pepan, a French academic whom unfair destiny turned into a tattooist against his will. He was a prisoner there too and took Lale under his wing.
As Pepan’s assistant, Lale learned everything about the art of tattooing, as well as the business to keep their head down and mouth shut. Together they would set the ink on many prisoners during the next four weeks, until one day Pepan disappeared without a trace. He was shipped out, and Lale would never see him again.
The new tetovierer
But Lale was a skilled laborer who had learned the trade well. He spoke many languages—Slovakian, German, Russian, French, Hungarian and a bit of Polish—, which helped him become an asset in the eyes of the Nazis. So, after Pepan’s disappearance, Lale was made the tetovierer (tattooist) of the camp. And this meant privilege.
With his promotion as tetovierer, Lale now technically worked for the Political Wing of the SS. He was assigned a personal officer to monitor him throughout his work, which signaled he was someone of some import within the camp’s walls. He was given his own room, extra rations, and free time whenever he finished his work of the day or when there were no prisoners to tattoo. As such, he was one step farther away from death than the rest of the prisoners. But one step wasn’t much: he still could be killed any second, and he knew it. He had learned the business of survival too well, so he knew better than to rest on his laurels.
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Repaying in kind
Two years passed. Lale had tattooed hundreds of thousands of prisoners, some to remain in the camp until the end of the war, some never to be seen again. Whenever a new captive arrived before him, Lale was handed a piece of paper with the numbers he was to imprint on the unfortunate’s skin. The job became a habit, and Lale did it well—as ordered. He never asked for the job; he never wanted it. But the Nazis’ commands were hard to disobey. Say no, and you died. It was the law of that land.
Though Lale enjoyed the benefits of his position, he never saw himself as a collaborator. Active resistance was out of the question—many had tried, and nothing had come of it except more corpses thrown away. It all seemed too hopeless. So, Lale did the best he could under the circumstances. Instead of rejecting his privilege, he used it for the betterment of his fellow prisoners. He gave away his extra rations to those who had none. He helped smuggle money or other valuables in and out of the camp. He traded contraband given to him by some in order to get provisions to others.
Prisoner 34902: love at first sight
Back when Lale was getting started as Pepan’s assistant, in July 1942, he was handed one of the regular pieces of paper before tattooing someone. It contained five digits: 34902. It was still a shock for Lale, tattooing people. Taking away their identity like Pepan took his. He was not used to it, and it was even worse when the victim was a girl. But Pepan insisted. It was that or be killed.
In front of Lale that one time stood one of the thousands of women he would end up tattooing throughout his stay at Auschwitz. But this one was different. Special. Her eyes were bright as candles and her smile was captivating. He was struck. As he tattooed the numbers onto her skin, he asked for her name. It was Gita. Gita Fuhrmannova. Lale would remember that.
Gita was a prisoner in the women’s camp, sector Bla of Auschwitz II. Over the next few years, Lale smuggled letters to her with the help of his personal SS guard, and made sure she was well taken care of. Soon, these letters turned into secret visits outside her block.
He gave her many of his extra rations during this time, and even got her moved to a better work station. Though Gita always feared she’d die at Auschwitz, Lale never gave up hope—and he tried to rub some of his optimism unto her. They were in love.
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A fate undone
As the war drew near its end, the Nazis began shipping prisoners out of Auschwitz before the Russians got there. It was 1945, and Gita was one of the women selected to leave the camp.
Lale was desperate. He didn’t know if he would ever see her again. After all, he only knew her name—not where she had come from nor where she would go. Was she going to be okay? Was she safe? The doubts tormented him for what seemed like an eternity.
But eventually, Lale managed to leave the camp as well. The Nazis had lost, and he was free. He was no longer just a number. And he wanted to start his life. He made his way back home in Czechoslovakia with the jewels he had stolen from the Nazis, and found his sister, Goldie, who had also survived the war. Their family home was still there, and it was theirs. All he had to do now—all he wanted then—was to find Gita. So he got up on a horse and traveled to Bratislava, the point of entry for many of the survivors into Czechoslovakia.
He remained at the train station with nothing but the vague hope he might find her there. He waited for weeks. One day, the stationmaster suggested he should go to the Red Cross instead. With nothing to lose, he set off, only to be stopped by a woman on the street as he left the station. She stepped in front of his horse, and stayed there for a second, motionless. She had a familiar pair of bright eyes. They gazed at each other. Gita had found him.
Happily ever after
Lale and Gita married in October 1945, and changed their last name to the Russian-sounding Sokolov. They wanted to fit in a Russia-controlled Czechoslovakia, after all. There, Lale set up a successful textile shop, and things were looking up for a while. Until he was arrested.
Lale had been sending money out of the country to support the founding of an Israeli state, and the Russians didn’t care for that. His business was taken away, and he was sent to prison. Fortunately, he managed to get away soon after, during a weekend leave, and the couple fled. First to Vienna, then to Paris, and finally to Melbourne, never to look back.
Lale started a business again, and Geta designed dresses. The couple had their only son, Gary, in 1961. Though Gita visited Europe a few times after that, Lale never returned.
A story long untold
When Gita died in 2003, Lale finally opened up about what had happened. He had kept his story a secret for nearly 60 years, riddled with guilt and remorse for his role in stripping humanity away from so many people. At least that’s the way he saw it. It was author Heather Morris to whom Lale finally decided to tell his amazing tale.
Such is the love story narrated in The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The historical fiction book was published in January 2018, over 76 years after that sad day in April 1942, when a young Jewish man named Ludwig “Lale” Eisenberg was put on a train on its way to Auschwitz.
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