Chapter no 10

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Within days, Lale has been made an honorary Romani. Every time he returns to what is now officially known as the ‘Gypsy camp’ he is greeted by young boys and girls, who encircle him and ask him to play, or to dig food from his bag. They know he has access to it, he has shared some with them, but he explains that he will give what he can to the adults, to portion out to those in greatest need. Many of the adult men approach him daily, asking if he has any news of their fate. He assures them he will pass on anything he hears. He suggests they accept their situation as best they can. And recommends arranging some sort of schooling for the children, even if it is merely telling them stories about their home, their family, their culture.

Lale is happy to see them pursue this suggestion, and delighted that the older women are given the role of teachers. He notices in them a tiny spark that wasn’t present before. Of course his own return always interrupts whatever lesson is underway. On occasion he sits with them, listening, learning of a people and culture so different to his own. He often asks questions, which the women are pleased to answer, further educating the children who seem more interested when Lale has asked the question. Having spent all his life in one home with his family, the nomadic existence of the Romani intrigues him. His life of comfort and knowing his place in the world, his education and life experiences, seem mundane and predictable compared to the travels and struggles endured by the people he now finds himself living with. There is one woman he has often noticed on her own. She appears to have no children or family, no one who engages with her or shows her affection. Often she is just an extra pair of hands for a mother struggling with too many children. She looks like she’s in her fifties though Lale has learned that Romani men and women often look older than their years.

One evening, both of them having assisted with getting the children to sleep, Lale follows her outside.

‘Thank you for your help tonight,’ he begins.

She gives him a thin smile and sits on a pile of bricks to rest. ‘I’ve been putting children to bed since I was a baby myself. I could do it with my eyes closed.’

Lale sits beside her. ‘I don’t doubt it. But you don’t seem to have any family here?’

She shakes her head sadly. ‘My husband and son died of typhus. It’s only me now. Nadya.’

‘I’m so sorry, Nadya. I’d like to hear about them. My name is Lale.’



That evening Lale and Nadya converse long into the night. Lale does most of the talking, with Nadya preferring to listen. He tells her of his family back in Slovakia and of his love for Gita. He discovers she is only forty-one years old. Her son had been six when he died three years ago, two days before his father. When Lale asks for her opinion, he finds Nadya’s answers similar to those his mother would give. Is it this that draws him to her, that makes him want to protect her the way he wants to protect Gita? He finds himself sinking into an acute homesickness. He can’t ignore his fears about the future. Dark thoughts he has kept at bay, about his family and their safety, consume him. If he can’t help them, then he will do what he can for this woman in front of him.

A few days later, as he arrives back, a young boy toddles up to him. Lale sweeps him up in his arms. The boy’s weight and smell remind him of the young nephew he said goodbye to over a year ago. Overcome with emotion, Lale places the child back down and hurries inside. For once none of the children follow him; something tells them to keep their distance.

Lying on his bed, he thinks back to the last time he was with his family. The farewell at the train station that would take him to Prague. His mother had helped him pack his suitcase. In between wiping away tears, she kept taking out clothes he packed and putting in books for ‘comfort and a reminder of home, wherever you end up’.

As they stood on the platform, with Lale about to board the train, he saw tears in his father’s eyes for the first time. He had expected them from everyone else, but not from his strong, dependable father. From his carriage window he saw his father being helped away by his brother and sister. His mother ran the length of the platform, her arms outstretched, trying desperately to reach out to her baby boy. His two young nephews, oblivious to their changing world, ran innocently beside the train, playing chase with it.

Clutching his suitcase containing only clothes and the few books he’d allowed his mother to pack, Lale leaned his head against the window and sobbed. He had been so caught up in the emotion of his family that he hadn’t registered his own devastating loss.

Chiding himself for letting his situation get to him, Lale goes back outside and chases the children around, letting them catch and climb all over him. Who needs trees when you have a Tätowierer to hang from? That evening he joins a group of men sitting outside. They share memories and stories of family life, captivated by the differences and similarities between their cultures. With the emotion of the day still running high, he says, ‘You know, in another life I would have nothing to do with you. I would probably turn

away from you, or cross the street if I saw you walking towards me.’

There is silence for several moments before one of the men pipes up, ‘Hey, Tätowierer, in another life we would have nothing to do with you either. We would cross the street first.’



The laughter that follows brings one of the women outside to tell them to be quiet – they will wake the children, and then there will be trouble. The men retreat inside, duly chastened. Lale lingers. He’s not tired enough to sleep. He senses Nadya’s presence and turns to see her standing in the doorway.

‘Join me,’ he says.

Nadya sits beside him, staring off into the night. He studies her face in profile. She is quite beautiful. Her unshaven brown hair cascades down her shoulders and blows in the slight breeze around her face, so that she spends a good deal of time tucking it back behind her ears. A gesture so familiar to him, a gesture his mother made all day, every day, as wayward strands escaped from her tight bun, or from under the scarf that hid it. Nadya speaks with the quietest natural voice he has ever heard. She’s not whispering – this is her voice. Lale finally works out what it is about her voice that saddens him. It is emotionless. Whether relaying stories of happy times with her family or the tragedy of being here, there is no change in tone.

‘What does your name mean?’ he asks.

‘Hope. It means hope.’ Nadya stands. ‘Goodnight,’ she says. She is gone before Lale can reply.

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