This isn’t author Heather Morris’s first time delving into the Holocaust. Her best-selling novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz fictionalized the true story of Lale Sokolov, who had indeed tattooed those monstrous numbers onto the forearms of prisoners — and had then often risked his life to help many of them survive.
Morris is the perfect vessel for these tender, painful, often heroic stories of horror, resilience, loyalty, and love. I first “met” Morris when I reached out to her for insight on publishing a historical novel. Expecting that, at best, her assistant would respond a week or so later with some generic advice, I was delightfully surprised to wake the next morning to a generous email from Morris herself. I quickly gleaned that helping others is in her nature. A New Zealand native who now lives in Australia, Morris spent many years working as an office manager in the social work department of a medical center where she honed her skills of active listening and compassion. So, it’s not surprising that first Lale Sokolov entrusted her with his story, and then, after reading Lale’s story, the Meller sisters reached out with the request that Morris also tell theirs.
I spoke with Morris about active listening, the sustenance of memory, and the necessity of telling our stories.
JANE RATCLIFFE: What you write about is often deeply traumatic. Does it take a toll on you?
HEATHER MORRIS: I have extensive training from when I was an office manager working with social workers and their patients and family members that taught me that whoever you’re with, if they’re sharing their pain or their trauma, you have to remember that it’s theirs. And you have no right to try and own it. Of course, you get emotionally connected. But you can’t let that be seen. How can you help somebody if you’re swallowed up by their grief and their trauma?
With Lale, because I was with him for such an intense period, there were times when he did transfer some of that grief and trauma onto me. It was my family that first picked up on it. I was coming home from being with him — and my family all adored him — and when they asked me how’s Lale today, and I would simply answer he’s fine and walk away. I wouldn’t offer anything more. When I mentioned it to a colleague, she kind of smacked me around the head and said, “Oh my goodness, a perfect case of transference. You know what to do.”
What did you do?
At the hospital, we have what’s called supervision or debriefs, so you’d go to a more senior colleague and just talk it through. With Lale, I had to find my own strategy. The one that worked for me was whenever I left him, he would be hanging over his balcony waving at me, so I would drive around to the next street and would sit there quietly for 10 or 15 minutes, no matter what time of day or night, and center myself. Reflect on what he may have said that was upsetting. Knowing that I’d always left him in a good place. I always shut him down from having been talking about that horrific time. That was crucial. But I didn’t always shut me down. So, I would do that. Sometimes I put music on. Other times, I’d sit back and close my eyes. I suspect all those neighbors in that street wondered what on earth was going on.
To tell these stories accurately, you must be a gifted listener.
Yes. The first person to teach me to listen was my great-grandfather in New Zealand, who lived two paddocks away. I saw him every afternoon after school and would sit with him. He would be sitting there quietly, and he’d say, Let’s just listen to the world. What do you hear? Oh, I can hear a tractor somewhere. Well, whose tractor is it? I don’t know. Well, you listen, and then we’ll find out. Is it Jim's down the road? And so we started this whole thing about, if you just shut up and listen — because that’s the first thing to listening is that you’ve got to shut up — that’s when you hear and learn. We need to listen to the elderly, to children, to ourselves.
Nearly 80 years later, why do you think these Holocaust stories are still important to share?
The Holocaust has been captured by the academics and the historians, and people like Spielberg with his Shoah Foundation. And it occurred to me that there was perhaps room to also learn about that period by looking at the individuals who were in it. Anne Frank’s diary is the one book that anyone has heard of, and how much does it actually tell us about the horror of the camps?
When I met Lale, I became aware that I knew so little about the camps. What chance was there for the next generation, my children and their children, to hear about people like him? And here’s a beautiful thing: everywhere I go, and I meet other Holocaust survivors, they say to me, in telling Lale’s story you’ve told mine and thank you.
With Lale, Livi, and Magda, I asked them multiple times, Why do you want me to tell your story? The first thing they always said was so that it doesn’t happen again. Now I think that’s a little bit naïve, because we haven’t actually moved on and got a better world as a result of World War II. But they cling to that: so that it never happens again.
There’s a global rise in antisemitism. Do you think telling these stories can affect this?
Apparently, I’m credited with creating a subgenre of historical fiction called Holocaust historical fiction and there are more books coming out every day. If more people read about it, I can only hope that when they do come across somebody who wants to deny it that they stand up and say something.
I have done events where halfway through, someone stood up and tried to have a go about denying it. I generally give them about 30 seconds of having a rant, then I found something that never worked with my children but seems to work with them: I just put my finger up and say, "Have you had enough?” As soon as they go silent, I say to them, “Is there anything I can say to you to change your mind?” No, no! And I say, “There’s nothing you can say to me to make me change mine. You have two choices, you can sit down, or you can leave.” One hundred percent of the time they leave.
Could you talk about your process? How much of this story is coming from interviews? Research? How much are you intuiting about these people?
Here’s the thing, I never consider that I interview anybody. I just talk to them. Because interviewing means you’re writing something down or you’re recording, and I never do. If you’re actively listening to somebody, you don’t need to write notes, you’ll remember what they said.
In terms of the sisters, I had not only all the many, many hours I’d spent with them, their children, but Cibi and Livi made Shoah tapes for the foundation. I got these tapes and had them translated because they’re all in Hebrew. And I watched them on the video because it was important to see them, never mind I couldn’t understand what they were saying. How can I capture Cibi when I haven’t met her? And that was the beautiful thing about watching her Shoah tape not understanding what she said, but her body language said it all.
Everything that’s in the books has come from them. And then I’ve reimagined the conversations that they had, because they told me in very long-winded waffly ways. Imagine having to sleep in the forest. That happened, but all Magda could remember was she had this one spot in the forest where she could hide in an embankment. Or things like the linden tree. They used to go down to the Catholic Church, and the priests let them shake the linden tree to be able to get the flowers off it. These are things outside of the horrors that were going on inside the camp.
The three sisters live through extraordinary suffering. Unimageable to most of us. Yet while traumatized they go on to live rich and loving lives. How do you think they were able to manage their trauma and create such vibrant lives for themselves?
Because they were three sisters. And they were doing it for each other. They told me about different times in their life when one or other stepped up. How Livi went from being the baby that just curled up in the fetal position every chance she got, that she ended up being the one that was almost the matriarch of the three of them and an incredibly strong woman. It does come back to: Would they have turned out that way if one of them had died, if they hadn’t all three survived?
I wondered what would have happened if Magda hadn’t come. Because she did seem to revitalize Cibi and Livi.
Oh, absolutely. Because what Magda brought to the two girls were the memories. She was able to bring back the mother and the grandfather into the girls’ lives and talk about them for the past two and a half years, whereas the other two had no idea what had gone on. Livi talks about when they were on the death march, it was in the middle of winter, in deep snow, and they wanted to give up so many times. And it would always be Magda who would tell them another story of their home. I see her as being the keeper of the memories.
There are moments of kindness amid the horror, small actions from the Nazis or kapos that help the sisters at various times. The SS officer who gets Cibi an easier job at the post office at Birkenau. Another who gives her the prayer book. The kapo who hides Livi. Yet these people are monsters.
It’s a really vexed question to have to think about when writing these stories. Nobody wants to read that there was an SS officer in Auschwitz-Birkenau that was anything other than an evil monster. That’s how they are to be portrayed. I spoke to the sisters about this, particularly one kapo, Rita, who I was able to look up and find testimonies that were given against her and how she was charged with being a collaborator. Things didn’t end well for her. I said to Livi, “You know what happened to Rita. She was a bad person.” And she said, “Yes, she was, I saw it all the time. But then she was kind to me.” “And you want that to be put in?” She said, “Yes, I do.”
How did learning these stories, then writing and sharing them, change you?
I’m speaking up more when I do see things that are going on, even in our own country here. Lale said to me that when we get shot — and he said when we get shot, not if — we will all bleed the same color red. And so that whole notion of don’t single people out for any reason at all, I’m prepared to be a bit more vocal about it now. And a bit crusadery in talking about the abuse of girls and women during times of conflict. That has been brushed under the carpet for way too long. But I’m out there now shouting from the treetops, “You’ve got to acknowledge this!” We allowed these women to go to their deaths 60 or 70 years later, carrying the shame of having been abused, when it was never their shame, it was ours.
Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, The Sun, Longreads, Tin House, and Narratively, among others publications. She has just finished a novel about the peace movement and women’s movement in London during World War II.