Heather Morris achieved something in 2018 that many novelists can only dream of. Her book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
It was a fictional yet fact-based account of the memories of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was sent to the notorious Nazi prison camp in 1942. He was appointed as the camp tattooist, met his future wife Gita, experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, survived the horrific death march as the war was concluding, and, after being separated and reunited, the couple ended up living happily in Melbourne, Australia.
In a Zoom interview with the Straight from her home in Melbourne, Morris said that she never really “decided” to become a writer.
“I didn’t have a choice after I met Lale Sokolov,” she declared. “He was in my life for three years and I had this incredible story.
"The last words I said to him, two hours before he died, was to let him know I would never ever stop trying to tell his story to anyone who wanted to listen.”
Morris followed that up with Cilka’s Journey, about Cilka Klein, whom Solokov described as “the bravest person I ever met”. Klein, too, was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she allegedly had a sexual relationship with the head of the camp, though that remains in dispute.
Later, the Russians sent Klein to Siberia, and after the book came out, her stepson described it as “extremely hurtful” and “false”. Details in The Tattooist of Auschwitz —such as a scene in which Dr. Josef Mengele sterilized a man—were also disputed by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre, but Morris told the Straight that her books are novels, not memoirs or biographies.
Morris also emphasized that she was sharing Sokolov’s recollections, which were shared with her when he was between the ages of 87 and 89.
“It’s Lale’s Holocaust memory,” she said. “This is his story as told to me.”
Her newest book, continues that tradition. Three Sisters: A Novel is about the love of three Slovakian siblings—Cibi, Magda, and Livia—who all survived the Second World War after being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“Every Holocaust survivor I’ve met—and I’ve been privileged to meet many across many countries—all use that same word: I was just lucky,” Morris said.
The three sisters had all made a promise to their father that they wouldn’t be separated. Two of them, Cibi and Livia, were sent to the concentration camp together in 1942.
“They were staying alive to get back to the missing sister—the sister that was in Slovakia for two-and-a-half-years,” the author noted.
Meanwhile, Morris added, Magda was doing all that she could do to stay alive so that she could find the other two before she too was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Morris was able to piece the sisters’ stories together through interviews with Magda and Livia who are still alive in their late 90s. Cibi died in 2014, but her recollections were preserved through videotapes and a written testimony.
Cibi and Livia were among the early arrivals at Auschwitz-Birkenau. So how did they manage to survive so long?
Morris said that she learned that around 1944, a Nazi female officer persuaded the hierarchy not to subject those early arrivals—those whose numbers had only four digits—to be subjected to the weekly selection process. Morris also learned from the sisters that the female SS guards were unspeakably cruel.
Another revelation came when Morris discovered the existence of a fourth sister. Morris said that the three sisters had kept that as a secret between themselves for decades.
Then came another surprise. Two weeks before Three Sisters: A Novel went to the printer, a diary was discovered that Magda had written during the horrific death march.
Morris included one excerpt at the end of her book, describing Magda’s account of hearing from Russian soldiers on May 8, 1945, that the war was over. The memoir also documents the girls running away from the Nazis on April 30, 1945, and where they went after that.
According to Morris, the family is not interested in commercially exploiting this remarkable find. Rather, they just want to give it away to anyone who wants to read it. The original will be kept at Yad Vashem, which is Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims.
“These girls did not let their time during the Holocaust define who they then become as wives and mothers and friends,” Morris said. “I know not every survivor did. They were able to do that.”
In some cases, the sisters were in the same place at the same time, yet witnessed and experienced some events differently. For Morris, the challenge was to determine when history and memory walked side by side and where they parted.
“Well, what am I going to do with that?” Morris asked. “What if I can’t find supporting evidence and every time I come back? I’m writing this person’s story. Their memory. And if the history books can’t support what they remember, then it’s not going to matter to me.
“I know this is not what the academics want to hear,” the author continued. “But I maintain that I’m not writing the story of the Holocaust. I’m just writing individual stories.”
Ultimately, she said that Three Sisters: A Novel is about unconditional sibling love.
"We’re going through extraordinary times right now, every one of us, and we’re all having to find our own courage and resilience to deal with it," Morris declared. "These three girls did it as young teenagers under the most horrific, evil circumstances.”