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The Tattooist of Auschwitz References Real-Life Prisoners Who Escaped The Camp

The Tattooist of Auschwitz references some of the thousand prisoners who attempted escape. The ones who survived changed the world forever.

By Grace Jidoun

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a searing historical and biographical drama about one of the grimmest place in history. But at the center of the series is prisoner Lali Sokol, a tattooist who falls in love with fellow prisoner, Gita, and their eventual escape from the Nazis. However, theirs isn't the only harrowing story of survival to come out of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

Their love story brings hope to the horror and is based solely on Lali's recollection several years later. Through the six-episode series, now streaming on Peacock, we learn about other rare moments that provided glimmers of hope to the prisoners as they experienced the unimaginable.

One scene in particular illustrates that spirit of triumph: When Gita (Anna Próchniak) learns that prisoners have escaped, she believes they’ll tell the world what is happening. While The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a dramatic recreation of real-life events — based on Heather Morris’ famous book — there were certainly hundreds of brave people who attempted escape, and some who made it to safety. Here we'll explore just some of the Auschwitz escapes that brought fellow prisoners hope. 

How Many Prisoners Escaped Auschwitz?

A Message of Hope and Love | The Tattooist of Auschwitz on Peacock | NBC

The very first escape came in July, 1940 not long after Auschwitz opened in southern Poland as the largest of the Nazi death camps.

It’s estimated that a total of 196 prisoners successfully escaped the camp, and according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the majority lived to see the end of the war. However, about four times as many prisoners were thwarted, with some 732 prisoners captured, killed, or simply disappeared. Those brave souls who risked all came from many different backgrounds, including Jews, Poles, Russians, as well as some Romani and Czech. 

Approximately 1.1 million prisoners, or about 85 percent of people sent to Auschwitz during World War II, did not survive their internment. Just before the closure of the camp in 1945, nearly 60,000 prisoners had been “evacuated” west on death marches, with tens of thousands losing their lives along the way. When liberation day arrived in January 1945, there were some 7,000 prisoners at the camp.

How Did the Auschwitz Prisoners Escape?

Jonah Hauer-King appears as Lali Sokolov in The Tattoist Of Auschwitz.

Most prisoners were smuggled out by clandestine resistance movements in German-occupied Poland, hiding out in people’s homes until the end of the war. An underground resistance movement inside the camp also assisted with escapes. Prisoners often disguised themselves as guards, donning SS uniforms, and left camps in horse carts or vehicles they had cleverly commandeered from the Nazi motor pool. Others escaped while working at the coalmines or for the notorious German chemical company IG Farben, which forced 30,000 prisoners from Auschwitz into slave labor.

The escapees risked more than just their lives if they were caught. SS Soldiers often murdered anyone suspected of helping, tracking down family members and sympathizers outside of the camp who were waiting for them or willing to help. Unfortunate prisoners who were suspected of assisting the escapees were often brutally interrogated before being murdered, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

The Escapees Changed the Course of History

Jonah Hauer-King in The Tattooist Of Auschwitz

Remarkably, at the peak of the war, the existence of the Nazi camps was barely known to the broader world, but two escaped Jewish prisoners would change all that.

On April 7, 1944, Walter Rosenberg, 19, and Fred Wetzler, 25, hid in a hollowed-out spot within a woodpile at Auschwitz, spreading tobacco-soaked gasoline around their hideout to mask their scent from dogs. After four days of searching, the Nazis gave up, and the two prisoners escaped, intent on warning Hungarian Jews about the death camps — the last major intact Jewish community in Europe. 

Rosenberg and Wetzler traversed forests and treacherous terrain for eleven days to reach their home country of Slovakia. There, they created the first detailed account of Auschwitz ever written, the Vrba-Wetzler Report. It was released in the summer of 1944 and prompted international outcry, changing the course of history forever.

While the escaped duo's story is not told outright in The Tattooist of Auschwitz, even Gita and Lali felt the hope that stemmed from their escape and the promise that the world would soon find out what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people. In the end, rescue never came for them and it was up to each other to find their way out of their horror. But like Lali and Gita's story, history won't forget people like Rosenberg, Wtzler and countless others who succeeded or attempted to escape Auschwitz. 

All six episodes of The Tattooist of Auschwitz are available to watch on Peacock.