The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Lale changed his name to Sokolov, the Russian surname of his married sister – a name more readily accepted than Eisenberg in Soviet-controlled Slovakia. He and Gita were married in October 1945 and they set up home in Bratislava. Lale started importing fine fabrics – linen, silk, cotton – from throughout Europe and Asia. He sold these on to manufacturers desperate to rebuild and reclothe their country. With the Soviet Union having taken over Czechoslovakia, according to Lale, his was the only business not immediately nationalised by the communist rulers. He was, after all, providing the very materials the government hierarchy wanted for their personal use.

The business grew; he took on a partner and profits increased. Once again Lale began wearing stylish clothing. He and Gita dined at the best restaurants and holidayed at spa complexes around the Soviet Union. They were strong supporters of a movement to establish a Jewish state in Israel. Gita in particular worked quietly behind the scenes, obtaining money from wealthy locals and arranging for it to be smuggled out of the country. When the marriage of Lale’s business partner ended, his ex-wife reported Lale and Gita’s activities to the authorities. On 20 April 1948, Lale was arrested and charged with ‘exporting jewellery and other valuables from Czechoslovakia’. The arrest warrant continued, ‘As a result, Czechoslovakia would have suffered untold economic losses and Sokolov would have obtained for his unlawful and marauding action significant values in money or possessions.’ While Lale had been exporting jewellery and money, there was nothing financial in it for him. He had been giving money away.

Two days later his business was nationalised and he was sentenced to two years in Ilava Prison, a place famous for holding political and German prisoners after the war. Lale and Gita had been smart enough to stash some of their wealth. With contacts in the local government and judiciary, Gita was able to bribe officials to help. One day Lale received a visit in prison from a Catholic priest. After a while the priest asked the prison officials to leave the room so he could hear Lale’s confession, something that was sacrosanct and for his ears only. Alone, he told Lale to start acting as though he were going mad. If he did a good enough job, they would have to get a psychiatrist to see him. Before too long Lale found himself in front of a psychiatrist, who told him he was going to arrange for him to be given leave to go home for a few days before he ‘went over the edge and couldn’t be brought back’.

A week later he was driven to the apartment where he and Gita lived. He was told he would be picked up in two days to complete his sentence. That

night, with the help of friends, they slipped out of the back of their apartment building with a suitcase each of possessions and a painting that Gita refused to leave behind. The painting is of a Gypsy woman. They also took a large amount of money to give to a contact in Vienna, destined for Israel. Then they hid behind the false wall of a truck taking produce from Bratislava into Austria.

At a given time on a given day they walked along a platform at Vienna train station looking for a contact they had never met. Lale described it as like something out of a Le Carré novel. They muttered a password to several single gentlemen until finally one gave the appropriate response. Lale slipped a small briefcase of money to the man and then he disappeared.

From Vienna they travelled to Paris, where they rented an apartment and for several months enjoyed the cafes and bars of the city returning to its prewar self. Seeing Josephine Baker, the brilliant black American singer and dancer, perform in cabaret was a memory Lale would always carry with him. He described her as having ‘legs up to here’, indicating his waist.

With no work available for non-French citizens, Lale and Gita decided to leave France. They wanted to go as far away from Europe as possible. So they bought fraudulent passports and set sail for Sydney, where they landed on 29 July 1949.

On the ship over they befriended a couple who told them about their family in Melbourne with whom they intended to live. That was enough to persuade Lale and Gita to settle in Melbourne too. Once again, Lale entered the textile trade. He bought a small warehouse and set about sourcing fabrics locally and abroad to sell on. Gita decided she wanted to be part of the business too and enrolled in a dress-design course. She subsequently started designing women’s clothing, which added another dimension to their business.

Their greatest desire was to have a child, but it simply would not happen for them. Eventually they gave up hope. Then, to their great surprise and delight, Gita fell pregnant. Their son Gary was born in 1961, when Gita was 36 and Lale was 44. Their life was full, with a child, friends, a successful business and holidays on the Gold Coast, all supported by a love that no hardship had been able to break.

The painting of the Gypsy woman Gita brought with them from Slovakia still hangs in Gary’s lounge room.

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