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The Story Behind Peacock’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz




Five years after Heather Morris’s 2017 novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz topped the New York Times’ paperback fiction list, a limited series of the same name will stream on Peacock starting today (May 2).

The novel and six-episode series both center on the story of a real-life Auschwitz prisoner, Lali Sokolov, whom the Nazis forced to tattoo identifying numbers on to fellow inmates. Yet amid the hellscape of the concentration camp, he met the love of his life, Gita Furman, and they married when the war was over. Sokolov, who died in 2006, told his story to Morris over the course of three years when he was in his 80s and 90s, and the novel and show are inspired by those conversations.

While the show and novel are billed as based on a true story, there are questions about how accurate the story really is. In a 2018 article, published in a magazine produced by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, one of its research center staffers, Wanda Witek-Malicka, laid out what the novel gets right and wrong about the camp experience. TIME talked to the showrunners, Director Tali Shalom-Ezer and Executive Producer Claire Mundell, about the historical research they did for the show, and Witek-Malicka about why it’s especially important that TV shows and novels based on the Holocaust contain believable situations.

What we know and don’t know about the real tattooist of Auschwitz

Witek-Malicka confirms that Lali Sokolov was a real tattooist and prisoner at Auschwitz in Poland, Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp. He arrived on April 23, 1942, from Slovakia and was given the number 32407. It is true that he tattooed identifying numbers onto incoming inmates. It is true that he fell in love with Gita Furman and they lived happily ever after. But Witek-Malicka says the descriptions of how the camp works and the layout are inaccurate. Despite a moving scene in the Peacock show depicting Gita and Lali’s first meeting when he tattoos a number on her arm, Witek-Malicka says that could not have happened in real life because men tattooed male inmates and women tattooed female inmates.

Witek-Malicka takes issue with the way that Morris largely relied on Sokolov’s testimony. She argues the novel should have better reflected the latest academic literature on the camp and the documents in the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. But as Morris told the New York Times in 2018, “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of nonfiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.”

The real history behind Peacock’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The showrunners knew about Witek-Malicka’s article, and worked to make details in the show more accurate. For example, they did not use Gita’s number in the novel, 34902, and instead used 4562, the number she mentioned in her testimony to USC’s Shoah Foundation. In the novel, Lali tries to find penicillin for Gita, but the medication wasn’t widely accessible until after the war, so the show calls the medicine an antimicrobial. And the show makes it clear that Sokolov was one of several tattooists, and not the only one like the novel suggests.

To depict the camp layout more accurately, production staffers made trips to Auschwitz; Mundell, an executive producer, says she personally went there six times. Because Witek-Malicka warned about the danger of relying on one survivor’s memory, the production hired documentary filmmaker Naomi Gryn to watch survivor testimonies, find prisoners’ drawings, liaise with libraries and museums around the world like the Imperial War Museum in London, and put out queries to the Auschwitz museum.

Still, the filMMAkers say the show is based primarily on Sokolov’s recollections. As director Shalom-Ezer tells TIME, “ultimately the History that we're telling is Lali’s History. We believe Lali. We're going to tell his memory, exactly the way that he described it.”

The power of period dramas

So to what extent should historical fiction be historically accurate? Witek-Malicka believes writers of historical fiction have a responsibility to portray History accurately for readers who may only learn about the past through from historical fiction and period dramas.

Mundell hopes the show will “encourage people to educate themselves” and read more about Auschwitz and Holocaust History after seeing the show. It’s true, as Witek-Malicka writes in her article, that Sokolov and Furman’s experience was an anomaly.

In the afterward for The Tattooist of Auschwitz novel, the couple’s son Gary Sokolov details how the Auschwitz experience affected his parents later in life. He said his mother always picked four-leaf and five-leaf leaf clovers because she said prisoners who gave them to German soldiers would receive extra portions of soup and bread. His father, Lali, said he couldn’t cry anymore after seeing death on such a mass scale—until the death of his wife in 2003. His parents were serious about making sure he learned the full history of the Holocaust, describing how they made him watch a TV series The World at War when he was 13 years old. He says they openly talked about their experience in Auschwitz, but could not sit and watch the series with him because it was too painful.

For Sokolov, telling his story to Morris was a kind of therapy. In the show, ghosts of Nazi soldiers haunt him in his apartment. Shalom-Ezer hopes that will raise awareness of how the Holocaust still affects survivors today. As she puts it, “one misconception I would want to debunk would be that when the camps were liberated that everyone lived happily ever after. Trauma is a lifelong burden to carry for the survivors. This isn't a History lesson from the past. This is something that's very much alive.”