Bestseller takes time out to return to her old School
When Heather Williamson left Te Awamutu College ‘some decades ago’ to make a bit of money and then escape small town New Zealand to see the world, she would never have dreamed of coming back to her old school as an international bestselling author to address students. But this week that is exactly what happened.
Heather is the author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, an historic novel which has topped sales around the world since its release last year — including 20 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. So far it has been translated into 46 languages and more than two million copies sold into 49 countries — and counting. “I’m very proud it has been translated into Fasi,” says Heather. “And later this year it will be released in Russia.”
The Tattooist of Auschwitz has also been made into an audio book — which is how I ‘read’ it as all Waipa Library copies were out and booked. Read by Richard Armitage, it won a 2018 Earphones Award — given by AudioFile to’ truly exceptional titles that excel in narrative voice and style, characterisations, suitability to audio, and enhancement of the text’.
Heather spoke to about 75 Te Awamutu College Year 11-13 English and history students in the school library on Monday morning. She was home to be with family in between a busy schedule which takes her to America next, then South Africa after she returns home to Melbourne for the birth of a grandchild. The touring has already taken her around the world, with no sign of slowing up. The talk on Monday was mesmerising for students according to English teacher Karen Dowle, who organised the event.
“Heather was truly inspirational — she spoke from a place of experience and passion.” — Antoinette Cole (Year 13 student). “It was humbling to see how a former Te Awamutu College student has impacted so many people’s lives around the world with her writing. “Heather gave us a real life look at the trials and tribulations of being an author.” — Kyra Loomans (Year 13). “It was interesting to hear about the March of the Living at Auschwitz, an annual event that students around the world participate in of similar ages to ourselves.” — Mckenzie Heaslip (Year 13). Karen says teachers who attended the event commented how utterly absorbed students were for two hours while Heather spoke. “It was a powerful and moving experience for all who attended,” says Karen. “We were extremely lucky for Heather to return to the College and generously offer her time to share her stories with us.”
Heather grew up in Pirongia with her parents Jock and Joyce and four brothers. She attended Pirongia School and Te Awamutu College, worked in town for a couple of years and at 18 headed across the Tasman. Heather met her future husband, Aussie Steve Morris, and for a while they moved to Christchurch where they had family. Steve worked in IT and was headhunted back to Australia in 1987, where they have lived since. Heather worked in social services within the medical profession — mostly at Melbourne’s Monash Medical Centre. The couple have three children.
She has always been a keen reader, and a movie lover, but nothing prepared her for the journey of more than a dozen years that led her to international fame. It started in 2003 over coffee with a friend, who said “My friend Gary, whose mother has just died, asked me to find someone his father can tell a story to”. The only criteria was it had to be a non-Jew. Heather says she was immediately interested. “I’d had been doing some writing and preferred reading stories based on real people, so I said yes,” she says.
A week later Heather was at the home of Lale Sokolov — the tattooist of Auschwitz. She says he was an elderly gentleman, still grief-stricken over the death of his wife Gita who he had met in the prison camp. They had been married 60 years. It was his story of love and survival that formed the basis of the historic novel she was about to write — albeit that it did not hit the shelves until 15 years later.
Heather would go to Lale’s home regularly over the next three years and listen to his stories. She says listening was the key — she didn’t interview him or write copious notes. “I never tried to drag the details out of him,” says Heather. “As a social worker, I know you’re never going to get someone to tell you something if they don’t want to. “I had to be patient.” Lale also never told his stories in chronological order, so Heather would take her notes then do her own research and marry Lale’s recollections with known facts and events to create the story.
The two formed a bond, they met each other’s families and sometimes socialised. They remained close friends until Lale’s death in 2006 — and as she came to grips with her grief, Heather began to write. Initially though it was to be a screenplay, because she loved movies and thought this story would make a great film. Completed, she optioned it to an American studio for three years and they tried to put together a deal to make the film. After three years, with no deal, Heather signed up for another three years — but the result was the same. It was when she was staying with her brother and his wife who lived in Los Angeles that she changed her plan. “I was complaining about the useless bods up the road (in Hollywood) over dinner,” says Heather. “My sister-in-law told me to ‘get over myself and just write the bloody book’ — so I did.” It wasn’t plain sailing — “I’m no overnight success,” says Heather. Her Australian publishers wanted a ghost writer, but she refused so they said they would give her a chance.
Heather locked herself away, wrote a book and sent in the manuscript. Their reply was “Yeah. So you don’t know what you are doing, do you?” Heather started again, took some advice and eventually came up with her novel. The story told in The Tattooist of Auschwitz describes how the camp guards gave Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew fluent in five languages, and the horrific job of tattooing numbers on the arm of every person who arrived at Auschwitz. His ability to communicate made the long lines of doomed prisoners move more quickly. One day he tattooed a beautiful young woman, Gita. The two fell in love and somehow managed to survive the horrors of Auschwitz until its liberation in 1945. Even then they were parted, and it was only determination on Lale’s part that brought them back together.
Heather says Lale remembered some of the bizarre and horrific events that made the story so real — the score in the football match between prisoners and bored Auschwitz guards, watching dozens of naked male prisoners forced onto a bus that became a converted gas chamber from which he could hear the screams of the dying men, the clothing the girls wore, salvaged from a warehouse filled with the clothing of dead Jews, hidden rooms where he and Gita would meet in secret and the feel and smell of the ash from the crematoriums falling on him.
Heather and Lale had talked about returning to Auschwitz, but his death came before they could make the trip. Heather did go there and as the tour bus approached the gates of Auschwitz, where she was taking part in the International March of the Living, she saw a group waiting for her outside. They hugged her and gave her gifts. The people were from Lale’s Slovakian birthplace of Krompachy, they all wore a badge with the town’s name on it, and held up signs with Sokolov’s name and his birth and death dates. Inside Heather stood on the steps of one of the crematoria and apologised on Lale’s behalf to the 1.5 million people exterminated there. She says Lale felt it was his fault that he couldn’t save the souls who died there. “Lale’s motto in Auschwitz was, ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day’,” says Heather. “He told me he believed you owed it to yourself and those around you to make every day the best day it could be. My family and I try to live by these words.”
Article and photo courtesy of Te Awamutu Courier (Dean Taylor) – 4 April 2019