Menu

Profiting from Auschwitz: How 4 million books were sold on fabrications

Feb 10, 2020 • 18m 35s

Australian author Heather Morris has made millions selling books about the Holocaust, but the people in them are unrecognisable to their families.

play

 

Profiting from Auschwitz: How 4 million books were sold on fabrications

159 • Feb 10, 2020

Profiting from Auschwitz: How 4 million books were sold on fabrications

Archival Tape -- :

“You don’t think you’re distorting history? I mean the Auschwitz Memorial has some fairly strong credentials as well.”

Archival Tape -- Heather Morris:

“They do, absolutely. But I don’t think I am. And I come back to the notion that, as with the Tattooist, I’m not telling the story of the Holocaust, I’m just telling a story…”

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am — a daily podcast by The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

Australian author Heather Morris’s books about the Holocaust have sold millions of
copies. But the people she’s writing about are in many ways unrecognisable... to their families, and to the historical record. Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Christine Kenneally on the responsibility to tell the truth about what happened in those camps.

RUBY:

So, Christine, can you tell me how Heather Morris came to be writing these very successful historical fiction novels about the Holocaust?

CHRISTINE:

Heather Morris was from New Zealand originally. She became an Australian resident. She's been living in Australia for a really long time and raised her family here.

RUBY:

Christine Kenneally is an author and investigative journalist. She writes for The Monthly.

CHRISTINE:

And for a long time she worked as an office manager and was at the same time as a lot of us are an aspiring artist, an aspiring screenwriter.

And she was working on screenplays for many years until someone introduced her in 2003 to a man called Lale Sokolov.

Archival Tape -- Heather Morris:

“Can you tell me your name?”

Archival Tape -- Lale Sokolov:

“Yes. My name is Lou, Ludwig, born Sokolov. Born 28 October 1916 in Czechoslovakia.”

CHRISTINE:

He was in his 80s, a Jewish man living in Caulfield. And he wanted someone to tell the story of his life. And his life was absolutely extraordinary.

Archival Tape -- Heather Morris:

“Is Sokolov the name you were born with?”

Archival Tape -- Lale Sokolov:

“No. My name was Eisenberg, I changed it when I came back from the camp.”

CHRISTINE:

He had been in Auschwitz from 1942 to 1945 and he was forced as many inmates as many inmates of Auschwitz, were forced to do jobs.

Archival Tape -- Lale Sokolov:

“I had a name in the camp - and the name was Tätowierer - everyone knew me under that name. Even the SS”

CHRISTINE:

He was one of the tattooists of Auschwitz. So he tattooed hundreds and thousands of people as they came in the gates of Auschwitz and gave them a number assigned by the Nazis.

Archival Tape -- Lale Sokolov:

“Because you been a number in the camp. You didn’t have a name. You been a number.”

RUBY:

Tell me about how the conversations she had with him turned into a book?

CHRISTINE:

The story goes and this has been really part of the promotion of the book, they develop this friendship over many years.

And originally she was going to write a screenplay about the story of the tattooist, but she decided to turn it into a novel.

She actually tried a Kickstarter, I believe, at one point. And then an editor at Eko Press in Melbourne saw the Kickstarter and they took it from there, turned into a novel -- a fictional story is set inside a real world.

RUBY:

So her novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. What was the response when it came out?

CHRISTINE:

It was an absolute smash hit. It was an absolute publishing phenomenon.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

”The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a debut novel has sold more than a million copies and became a global best seller”

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Heather Morris is of course the author of the international best selling and number one new york times best selling, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.”

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Heather Morris, welcome.”

CHRISTINE:

And it sold many, many millions of copies. Publishers all across the world bought the book and it's been translated into, I've lost count of how many languages.

So as it became more and more popular, as more and more people read it, certain things started to be raised.

There were questions both about the representation of Auschwitz in particular, but also about specific details and facts in the book.

CHRISTINE:

There was a blogger who pointed out that the story of Lale Sokolov finding medicine to save Gita Furman, the woman who later became his wife, she was sick and he found penicillin for her. But penicillin wasn't actually available at all at the time. So that was clearly not the case.

I was writing a newspaper article about it and I became really interested in the numbers that Sokolov was tattooing on the inmates of Auschwitz. Gita Thurman's number plays this critical role in the book. He apparently falls in love with her the day he meets her. She’s standing before him in the line waiting for her tattoo, and he tattoos the number 3 4 9 0 2 on her arm. But when I was looking into it, trying to understand actually how the numbers worked, it struck me that it wasn't possible for someone with that number to have entered Auschwitz on the day that she supposedly did enter Auschwitz. So I looked into it further. Eventually, I was able to sit down and watch her Shoah foundation interview, which was videotaped in the 1990s. And she herself says that her number was 4 5 6 2.

So that was completely wrong, and it also seemed to be sort of very pointless unforced error for a book that claimed to be so authentic.

RUBY:

As you say, this book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a work of fiction. So why does it matter that it's not totally accurate in these ways?

CHRISTINE:

Right, so it's historical fiction. So one expects, of course, that with historical fiction, you know, a fictional story is set inside a real world. There's always going to be differences. They are always gonna be things that aren't quite right in order to make a story work. And I don't think anyone has a problem with that. I think the real problem with it was that so much had been made of the authenticity of the book of the factuality of the book. It was spoken about as 95 per cent true and so much had been made of that and that it turned out really to be very flimsy claim in the end.

RUBY:

And so after it emerged that parts of this book were factually misleading. Was there any fallout, were there consequences for the author?

CHRISTINE:

Not really. Not not as far as I can tell. I mean, probably a few newspaper articles that were critical. The Auschwitz Memorial Journal article was certainly extremely critical - they ultimately called the book a document of no value. But the book continues to sell, as far as I know. And Morris has also gone on to publish a second book in what I believe is now called The Tattooist of Auschwitz series.

Archival Tape -- Heather Morris:

“Hello. I’m Heather Morris, the author or the Tattooist of Auschwitz. And the soon to be released Cilka’s journey.”

RUBY:

And that second book is Cilka’s Journey.

CHRISTINE:

That's right.

RUBY:

Mm hmm. Can you tell me a bit about Cilka’s journey?

CHRISTINE:

So just like the first book is based on the real life story of a real person. Although it's a novel and in this case, it's based on the story of a woman called Cilka Klein.

Archival Tape -- Heather Morris:

“Let me tell you a bit about Cilka, an 18 year old girl who was found in Auschwitz in 1945 by the Red Army and who was then transported to a Siberian gulag. If you’ve read Tattooist, you’ve heard about her... “

CHRISTINE:

Cilka Klein, who was also at Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945. She was a minor character in the first book. And now this book is about her whole life.

And her real life, the life of Celia Klein was just completely incredible. She was at Auschwitz for three years, which in and of itself is a feat of survival that is almost indescribable. Obviously, statistically, most people who walk through those gates never came out again. But not only did she survive Auschwitz, she was then sent to a Russian gulag, Vorkuta gulag, where she was imprisoned for 10 years.

When I was researching the piece, I spoke to a number of scholars about this, and some of them at first didn't believe me that it had been possible for someone to do that because they hadn't even heard of someone who'd been through such a terrible ordeal and had survived.

RUBY:

And so how is Cilka portrayed in Heather Morris's book?

CHRISTINE:

So the character of Cilka is she's like a kind of princess heroine of Auschwitz. It's a really strange representation of a person given the realities of Auschwitz. She's portrayed as incredibly sweet and remarkably beautiful.

And Morris attributes the story of Cilka’s life primarily to the memory of Lale Sokolov. The tattooist of Auschwitz. And this is a really interesting thing to do because there are actually people out there who knew Cilka very well.

Cilka had a stepson called George Kovacs. He lives in California. And George met Cilka numerous times. And Morris actually got in touch with George just before the book was published. She said she couldn't make it available, but what she could do was read some excerpts out. So one night they sat together and she read out some excerpts of Cilka’s journey.

But that did not work out so well.
Her representation of his father was completely unrecognisable to George. And shortly after that meeting, his attorney got in touch with the publishers. And, in fact, the character of Ivan Kovacs, George's father, was taken out of the book as a result of that before it was published. But he still was deeply unhappy about the representation of Cilka, who he didn't recognise at all from the novel, the fact that this woman was about to be sort of the main character in this hugely successful novel and that she had his stepmother's name was really distressing to him.

The publishers said that George really couldn't object to the representation of his stepmother because she was only his stepmother and not a blood relative. And then at that point, George Kovacs got in touch with me.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

[Advertisement]

RUBY:

We’re talking about Heather Morris’s novel Cilka’s Journey. You spoke to the stepson of Cilka - the woman whose life the novel is based on. What did he tell you?

CHRISTINE:

So when George got in touch with me, we started talking about the book and the representation of his stepmother on what could be done about it. And he wanted me to understand what he found so problematic about the book.

To begin with, he found the reality of the book just completely unbelievable. The representation of Auschwitz seemed like a strange light version of the death camp that made no sense.

He had some specific objections about Cilka. The character of Cilka is portrayed as being in an ongoing relationship with two SS officers. And he found those implausible and distressing.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“How confident are you that you are properly portraying what exactly Cilka went through Auschwitz?”

Archival Tape -- Heather Morris:

“Look I’m very confident. And I suspect the Auschwitz Museum are not going to be happy with it either once they read it.”

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Why do you suspect that?”

Archival Tape -- Heather Morris:

“Because they don’t like it being portrayed that the Germans in any way raped or sexually assaulted Jewish girls…”

CHRISTINE:

And he also thought that the scene there's a scene where she steals drugs in the Gulag. And he thought that was not like her character at all. When he knew her, she was a very upright, very upstanding person. Stealing drugs in a gulag would have hurt many other people. And he thought that was, that was not quite real.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“You don’t think you’re distorting history? I mean the Auschwitz Memorial has some fairly strong credentials as well.”

Archival Tape -- Heather Morris:

“They do, absolutely. But I don’t think I am. And I come back to the notion that, as with the Tattooist, I’m not telling the story of the Holocaust, I’m telling a story... “

CHRISTINE:

So George reached out in a state of great distress about the representation of Cilka, and he wanted journalists to look into what Morris had actually done with this character, where she'd gotten her research and how she was able to make these claims. And he didn't believe the stories about Cilka’s time at Auschwitz. He thought it was a composite character and he wanted me to see what I could find out.

RUBY:

What did you find out about the real Cilka?

CHRISTINE:

So I started looking into Cilka Klein at Auschwitz and I found a woman of that name who was remembered by many survivors. And this was in testimony that had been taken in 1945, written down in the 1960s, video recorded in the 1990s. She was remembered by many people and she was actually referred to by some of them as the notorious Cilka or the famous Cilka.

So in all of these stories, there's a young Slovak girl called Cilka. And she's in charge of a block that's sort of a barracks or a dorm at Auschwitz. And it's known as block 25. And in such a nightmarish, hellish place. This was surely one of the worst places, because this was where women were sent before they were then sent to the gas chambers. They were warehoused in this block. So to be forced to be in charge of that place would have been one of the most nightmarish, excruciating things that could happen to anyone, let alone to a young girl. But she was remembered as sadistic and vicious and a terrifying person by many different survivors.

There are quotes taken from people in the 90s who remembered her as very cruel, as repulsive. They talked about her raging, unrestrained, oddly, at her companions. They talked about her arrogance and sadistic violence. They talked about her taking food from prisoners and selling it or keeping it for herself. There was also a story that was common to a number of these stories that in her duties as the head of BLOCK 25, as someone who had to escort or scream at or push or get these people dying people onto the car to go to the gas chambers, she actually had to put her own mother onto the cart and send her there. Some of the representations of the story are people talking with a sense of agony about how awful that would have been. But some of them talk about this young girl boasting of having to do it.

RUBY:

How did finding this out about Cilka, how did that affect her stepson when he came to know all of this?

CHRISTINE:

When I shared these testimonies with George, it was incredibly distressing for him. He spent at least one night he described it as not being able to sleep, he’s wandering through the house, looking at pictures of his father and his stepmother and asking himself, could she have done this?

Could this have been her? What about my father? Why didn't he know? Surely he would have known. He was a very smart man. Ivan Kovach was a lawyer, and it was just this deeply disturbing and incredibly painful experience for him.

So in the end, I think George's position was that it didn't matter. He didn't believe that that Cilka of the survivor testimonies was his Cilka, but that it didn't matter if she did terrible things. He certainly understands that people had to do all sorts of things to survive at Auschwitz.

What really mattered to him was that this person, this author, had come into their lives, had taken this testimony and used it in the way that she'd used it to create this entirely fictional character. But she hadn't given this character a fictional name. She gave her the name of his stepmother.

RUBY:

Christine does this go to the bigger question of how truth is being undermined in our day and age? I'm talking here about fake news and the reemergence of Holocaust denialism.

CHRISTINE:

I think it absolutely does. I think this book does risk being actual Holocaust denialism.
The representation of the place and the decisions people had to make are not real. You know, there's a comment, I think in one of the author's notes about going to going to the core of what was true, you know, as fiction truly can do, as really great fiction does for us as going to the spirit of people's lives. But I don't think that this book does that.

And I think that it in these times of rising anti-Semitism, creating a kind of Holocaust light or using the Auschwitz death camp as theatre prop is really disturbing and problematic. And I think it would lead people potentially to believe that Auschwitz simply wasn't as bad as it was.

[Advertisement]

RUBY:

Also in the news - as the global death toll for coronavirus overtakes the Sars epidemic, it’s been revealed that the federal government rejected a proposal from the NSW health department to accommodate Australian citizens evacuated from Wuhan. Instead evacuees were sent to Christmas Island, a move criticised by the President of the Australian Medical Association.

And heavy rain in NSW has finally extinguished the massive Currowan fire on the state’s south coast. The blaze burned for 74 days and ripped through nearly half a million hectares. The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting one of the biggest rainfall events in decades across much of the state and flash flooding warnings have been issued up and down the coast.

The testimony you heard from Lale Sokolov at the beginning of this episode comes from the USC Shoah Foundation, interview number 2 4 7 1 6.

Australian author Heather Morris has made millions selling books about the Holocaust. But the people she writes about are in many ways unrecognisable, to their families and the historical record. Investigative journalist Christine Kenneally on the dangers of falsifying history.

Guest: Author and investigative journalist Christine Kenneally.

Background reading:

The fabulist of Auschwitz in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

Listen and subscribe in your favourite podcast app (it's free).

Apple podcasts Google podcasts Listen on Spotify

Share:

7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

Tags

writing literature fiction tattooistofauschwitz heathermorris




Subscribe to hear every episode in your favourite podcast app:
Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify

00:00
18:35
159: Profiting from Auschwitz: How 4 million books were sold on fabrications