Kiwi author Heather Morris vows to keep telling Holocaust survivor stories despite fierce criticism

Author Heather Morris with Holocaust survivor Lale Sokolov.
Author Heather Morris with Holocaust survivor Lale Sokolov.

A bestselling New Zealand author vows to keep telling the stories of Holocaust survivors, despite vocal criticism from Auschwitz historians. Glenn McConnell reports.   From Stuff, February 3, 2019.  Click for full report.

Heather Morris had never written a novel before she met Lale Sokolov. He was a Holocaust survivor who, before his death, entrusted his story of survival and love in Morris.

She went on to release her debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz in 2018. It took the world by storm, sitting in The New York Times top-three sellers list for 20 weeks, getting printed in 40 languages, and fielding rave reviews alongside earnest criticism.

This week, she announced plans to release a sequel, telling the story of another Auschwitz survivor. In the face of widespread criticism from official Holocaust historians, Morris tells Stuff she won’t stop at two books. She has more personal stories to tell, from others who survived those concentration camps.

Lale Sokolov survived imprisonment in Auschwitz and later moved to Australia, where he met Kiwi author Heather Morris.
Lale Sokolov survived imprisonment in Auschwitz and later moved to Australia, where he met Kiwi author Heather Morris.

The Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre issued a lengthy critique of her debut novel, saying the novel contained “numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations.

Morris, however, says she has no regrets about how her novels are researched.

“They’re Lale’s memories, they’re his stories. This is not the story of the Holocaust. It is a Holocaust story,” she says.

The inaccuracies raised range from the logistics of the story, the geography, time line and if some of the events would have even been possible. Morris says Lale, while a prisoner, got penicillin for his girlfriend and later wife Gita. The memorial says penicillin would have been impossible to find.

A plaque at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
A plaque at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

“I believe it was his version of what happened, and we have researchers doing their best to verify what they could, but so much of this was not on documents, files were destroyed, and his story was not documented.”

Morris says professional researches verified the “factual parts of his story”. She’s also comfortable with the accuracy of the novels, given her aim is to tell the personal recollections of survivors.

“When you have someone who was there, saying what happened – sorry, I’m going to write that,” she says.

The Te Awamutu-raised author, who moved to Melbourne in the 1970s, says her first book omitted significant stories because researchers were unable to get a second piece of evidence to back up Lale’s claims.

Since then, she says, they’ve found evidence to back up some of his other stories. “I would give anything to rewrite that book and include those.”

She sympathises with her critics, but is vowing to keep telling stories from survivors. “They feel protective and a degree of guardianship over the Holocaust story. I totally get that but maybe there’s room for both of us?”

Lale Sokolov and his wife Gita, with their son Gary.
Lale Sokolov and his wife Gita, with their son Gary.

Her second novel, due out in September, will tell the story of Cilka Kaufmannová. As a teenager, she was imprisoned in Auschwitz and, as Morris wrote her first novel, she was raped by the SS guards and became a sex slave to the camp commandant.

As Morris tells it, Kaufmannová’s story is truly horrific. She survived Auschwitz only to be sent to a Russian gulag – “probably the worst gulag there was” – for sleeping with the enemy.

Like Sokolov, she is said to have found love even in the most horrid of circumstances. It’s the story of love, and hope, which Morris says makes her novels different.

The news of a second novel was welcomed by Morris’ fans, but the Auschwitz Memorial was quick to hit back.

“The story of Cilka was one of the most questionable part of The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” it says.

But for Morris, it’s a story of love, hope and survival, in the most desperate of circumstances.

Sunday Star Times

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