Auschwitz: the largest of the concentration camps in the Second World War, where more than a million were put to death in the Holocaust.


That is the setting for a six-part period drama streaming on Sky Atlantic in the UK from 2 May, based on the 2018 novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris.

Lale Sokolov (played by Jonah Hauer-King), a Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942, is made to tattoo new arrivals to the camp with a registration number on their arms. When he meets a young prisoner named Gita (Anna Próchniak), he falls in love and so is offered a slither of hope in this otherwise hopeless place.

Here, Roger Moorhouse, an expert in modern German and Central European history, explains that not only was tattooing exclusive to Auschwitz, but that the drama series’ protagonist – Lale Sokolov – was a real person.

Was there really a tattooist at Auschwitz?

There were a few, in fact. From the middle of the Second World War, it was standard procedure in Auschwitz to identify those arriving prisoners who had been selected for work by tattooing them with their camp registration number.

The logic was that the corpses of dead prisoners, which were sometimes stripped of their clothing, had to be identifiable to ensure that camp records could be satisfactorily maintained.

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Was everyone at Auschwitz tattooed?

Initially, the SS had only tattooed Soviet prisoners of war, and those who were in the infirmary or scheduled to be executed.

The expansion of Auschwitz in 1942, however, saw the practice extended to include all prisoners that were selected to work. Those that were exterminated upon arrival were not registered, so there was no need for them to be tattooed.

In the early phase, prisoners were tattooed on the left side of the chest using a form of metal stamp that could be changed to make different numbers. This would then be punched at one blow into the prisoner’s skin, before ink was rubbed over the resulting wound to create a crude tattoo.

This method was considered impractical when the numbers of people being registered increased. Instead, a single-needle device was introduced, with which the serial number could be tattooed onto the outside of the left forearm.

This process did not take place at the other concentration camps, only at Auschwitz. It was primarily Jews that were marked, although other prisoners, such as Roma and some Poles, were processed in the same way. In all, some 400,000 registration numbers were issued.

Who were the tattooists of Auschwitz?

Not much is known about the tattooists themselves, except that they were part of a small group of prisoners working directly for the SS in the registration office and could be called on at any time to perform their task.

Granted extra rations and bonus payments, they were thereby preserved from some of the worst horrors of the camp.

Was Lale Sokolov a real person?

Lale Sokolov (formerly Ludwig Eisenberg), the character at the heart of Heather Morris’s novel was one of the tattooists at Auschwitz.

Though the book has received criticism by historians for its rather cavalier treatment of its wider subject matter, Sokolov was a real prisoner at the camp. Upon arriving in 1942, he was duly tattooed with the number 32407.

Later, in 1943, after a bout of typhus, Sokolov was engaged by the SS as a tattooist, in which capacity he is thought to have seen out the remainder of his time at Auschwitz. Camp records show him working for the registration department at least up to the end of September 1944.

As the end of the war approached, and with the Red Army advancing, he was evacuated in January 1945 and taken to Mauthausen, but he managed to escape.

Sokolov survived the war and later emigrated to Australia, where he would be interviewed by Morris. This meeting is part of the new television drama, with the older Sokolov depicted by Harvey Keitel.


Only in his last years before his death in 2006 did he feel able to talk about his experiences at Auschwitz.


Roger Moorhouse. (By
Roger MoorhouseHistorian and author

Roger Moorhouse is a historian specialising in modern German and Central European history, especially Nazi Germany and Poland during WW2.