Lessons from a tattoo artist

February 1st, 2019

My father served in the U. S. Navy during WWII. He saw his older shipmates’ crude, faded tattoos and heard their regrets about bearing a former girlfriend’s name on their bicep. So, he never got one. His sternly ordered me to follow his example.

Thanks to a former student, I’ve grown to appreciate tattoos and to admire the skill of high end tattoo artists. An artist herself, she opened her own shop in Manhattan. Last I heard, her clientele included an impressive list of well-known celebrities.

My mother’s arms were also free of tattoos, so it surprises some to learn that she had survived a Nazi concentration camp. Mauthausen, outside Linz, Austria. It’s common to think that every concentration camp survivor bears a tattoo. But this is not so.
Prisoners in Auschwitz—and its subcamps Birkenau and Monowitz—bore identification numbers in their flesh. The reason allied liberators found tattooed survivors elsewhere is that the Nazis transferred prisoners from camp to camp.

In any event, my stomach lurches—along with my soul—at the sight of those branded forearms. Tattooed identification numbers are traces of a calculated brutality that was bent on dehumanization and eventual extermination. Oddly, I had never given the first thought to the people who actually did the tattooing.

Until now. 

Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz tells the true story of Lale Sokolov. He was that death camp’s chief tattooist.

Most of us associate the very word “Auschwitz” with unspeakable cruelty and debilitating misery. And well it should. So I initially assumed that Morris’s narrative about a concentration camp tattooist would be the account of either a callous Nazi bureaucrat or a sadistic collaborator willingly adding to the misery of his fellow captives.

I could not have been more mistaken. 

The tale of Lale Sokolov teaches us that love makes life worth living in even the most horrific situations. It illustrates what Paul teaches us about love.

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Without love, we are “a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Our lives are pointless. One numbing thing after another. A seemingly endless, exhausting sequence of events. By contrast, our love for the other gives us a why. The reason we take the next step in even the most harrowing circumstances.

As Paul puts it, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7) This is what we can see in Lale Sokolov’s story.

Lale was born in Slovakia in 1916. After the Nazi occupation of 1938, Jews were eventually forbidden to work. The Nazis seized Jewish shops and factories. 

Mass deportations did not begin right away. For a time the horrors of the Holocaust remained unknown to locals. Nazi occupiers demanded that each family surrender one adult to work for the Germans. If a family failed to comply, every member would be arrested.

Lale volunteered for the love of his family. He sought to trade his labor for their lives.

In 1942, he found himself in a cattle car rolling toward an unknown destination. After arriving in what turned out to be Auschwitz, Lale briefly worked construction until he contracted typhoid. 

As a result of his illness, the Nazis shifted his duties to the admissions section of the camp, perhaps because of his knowledge of languages. There he was assigned the job of assistant tattooist and finally chief tattooist.

Tattooing men was emotionally difficult. But tattooing women nearly undid him. One day, he looked into the eyes of a young woman as he held her arm. He fell in love with her. He learned that her name was Gita and that she lived in Birkenau, the women’s subcamp.

Because he was chief tattooist, Lale’s quarters and his rations were a little better than those in the other sections of the camp. He set aside his extra rations and secreted them to Gita, to her friends, to his old block mates, and to prisoners in the most desperate need.

Love of neighbor—in even this ghastliest and most perilous of neighborhoods—continued to define Lale’s daily life. The threat of torture and death hovered over him constantly. From one perspective you might say that he risked his life to show this kind of love. But I don’t think this is accurate. He lived because he loved.

You see, a Nazi bullet or gas chamber would have terminated Lale’s biological existence whether he loved or not. But to pursue his own survival in disregard of his neighbor—to yield to the temptation of self-centeredness—would have led to his spiritual death.
He would have condemned himself to a hollow existence. To living a life no longer worth living. Being a noisy gong. A clanging cymbal.
Before the Russians liberated Auschwitz, the Nazis shipped Gita out. Eventually, Lale left the camp and returned home. Soon, he set out to find Gita amid the chaos of millions of liberated survivors. 

Driving a horse and cart, he traveled to Bratislava. On the road to the Red Cross station serving refugees, a woman suddenly stepped in front of his cart.

Gita had found Lale.

Eventually Lale and Gita married. They immigrated to Australia. There, Lale set up his own business and Gita gave birth to their only son.

Love did not achieve this remarkable ending for Lale and Gita. Many prisoners who loved selflessly perished before the Allies liberated the camps. Love did not prevent starvation, disease, torture, and gas from snatching the breath from millions.

However, those who gave their love freely to their ragged neighbor harbored a why for their lives that the Nazis—in all their violence and brutality—could not destroy. And love does the same for us all. 

Love gives our lives an eternal meaning. Without it, we are a noisy gong. A clanging cymbal.

Lessons from a Tattoo Artist originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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